There’s been a lot of discussion about how binge-viewing, DVRs and on demand availability have changed the way we approach television, how it’s allowed for more complex, serialized storytelling, how episodes no longer have the same obligation to keep new or sporadic viewers in mind. The far end of this evolution is Netflix, whose original shows have been unveiled whole seasons at a time — no need for “previously on” tags, no push for installments to end on cliffhangers to pull audiences back next week. So what does it mean that “Orange is the New Black,” the newest Netflix series premiering on July 11th, is both the streaming service’s best so far and its least structurally adventurous?
Maybe just that, in the rush to shake off the constraints of traditional TV, it’s best not to forget the elements that make TV what it is — while it’s freeing to not have to have a character woodenly remind us all in a wedged-in monologue about what happened last week, it’s hard to pull off a 13-hour movie that happens to be broken up into hourlong chunks, and even the best attempts to do so have had uneven results.
“Orange is the New Black” has actual episode arcs in addition to a larger story, and they adeptly reflect the gradual adaptation of its main character to the world of a federal women’s prison into which she’s been introduced. An ill-chosen comment about the quality of the food, a courtship by another inmate, the discovery that a potentially dangerous tool has gone missing from the electrical shop — these incidents become the pegs on which stories about the prisoners’ pasts and presents are hung. It feels like it’s genuinely fit to its format, not attempting to leave it behind.
“Orange is the New Black” is also warmly but acidly funny — like the first and best season of “Weeds” made sharper and less adorable. It’s the second series from showrunner Jenji Kohan, who created the Mary-Louise Parker Showtime comedy, and who here works from a memoir written by Piper Kerman about a 15-month sentence she served for the decade-old crime of helping her then-girlfriend’s drug smuggling ring.
Taylor Schilling plays the protagonist, here called Piper Chapman, a Connecticut girl who’s since outgrown her drifting, criminal-dabbling, bi-curious phase and is living a pleasantly hip Brooklyn life, engaged to writer Larry (Jason Biggs) and running an artisanal soaps and lotions line with her best friend Polly (Maria Dizzia). Piper is the kind of character who invites a certain amount of schadenfreude — she’s a Whole Foods devotee who likes to lecture about remembering to bring canvas bags, and whose progressive leanings are largely theoretical.
Rather than frame itself as a straightforward fish-out-of-water story, “Orange is the New Black” runs full force at its heroine’s unconscious privilege, showcasing the ways in which she has internalized a certain allowed indulgence with rules in approach to her life and the ways in which she underestimates or unknowingly condescends to her fellow inmates. The former aspect informs the underlying premise of the show — she, like many a kid from a comfortable background, was sowing some wild oats, and she feels a sense of unfairness that she should be held fully accountable for this when clearly she’s a nice white girl who should be given a slap on the wrist.
The fact that she actually did what she was accused of, and that she’s thrown in with a group of women who’ve never had the luxury of presuming they’d be left off the hook for law-breaking, gives her character’s journey a welcome fractiousness. Piper needs to fit in less than she needs to come to terms with the frictionlessness of life as a well-educated, upper middle class Caucasian that she’s unthinkingly enjoyed, and the fact that it no longer really applies.
That regrounding of perspective, so that it’s Piper’s life that starts to look outrageously entitled and narrow, is the great strength of “Orange is the New Black.” It’s not just the story of what prison did for Piper that’s treated as some unwilling adventure in extreme tourism for a woman who’ll later be able to write a book about it — and Schilling, who proved herself a solid TV lead in NBC’s “Nurse Jackie” knock-off “Mercy,” is able to make the character one whose story we’re invested in without needing to soften her self-pitying or persnickety moments. (Piper’s uncertainty about how to react to the un-PC racial groupings into which everyone has divided themselves is one of the entertaining early touches.)
And while Piper provides the entryway into the world of the women’s prison, she also quickly becomes just one of many perspectives from which we see the day-to-day there, as the show makes heavy use of flashbacks to delve into the lives of the other inmates, from the regal Russian Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew), who becomes an early antagonist, to transwoman Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), from brusque longtimer Claudette Pelage (Michelle Hurst) to bawdy former addict Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne).
The premise of “Orange is the New Black” allows it to have not just one of the most female-heavy ensembles currently on television but also one of the most ethnically and physically diverse, and it’s genuinely bracing to see such a variety of actresses (including familiar faces like Laura Prepon, who plays Piper’s ex Alex Vause) in a story that isn’t fundamentally centered around the quest to find a romantic partner. Not that romances, both hetero and not, are absent — one of the inmates (Dascha Polanco) has a sweet if risky flirtation with a guard while the strain Piper’s imprisonment places on her relationship with Larry is an ongoing thread, and lesbian relationships and sex are part of prison life and treated with the same unabashed frankness as all other aspects of its grounded and sometimes grubbily physical reality.
While the series has its gritty moments, it’s set in a minimum security prison and provides a counterpoint to all of the violent dramas and power plays of something like “Oz” — Piper’s first beef with a fellow inmate ends not with a shanking but with her realizing she’ll have to figure out a way to make amends with very limited means. “Orange is the New Black” has neither the intricate construction of the fourth season of “Arrested Development” nor the high gloss of prestige of “House of Cards” (though it does have Jodie Foster as an episode director), but in its tart, empathetic narrative it manages to have more vitality than both put together.