There once was a leading lady of television sitcoms whose winning charm, perfect smile, and essential goodness created a vehicle for her audience to experience a dazzling array of supporting characters in a comic, challenging, and insular universe. Her magnetism and generosity onscreen provided countless character actors an opportunity to shine, deliberately pull focus, and delight us in her orbit.
It’s easy to imagine “Orange is the New Black”‘s Taylor Schilling growing up in the era of Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” but she could be this generation’s Mary Tyler Moore.
Television has come a long way since (and in some ways, hasn’t matched) Mary Richards’ arrival in Minneapolis in 1970. We’ve cycled through icons in comedy like Murphy Brown and Carrie Bradshaw, figures who inspired comparisons to Richards in trend stories of their days. But writing as a Mary Tyler Moore Show enthusiast, something about Piper Chapman’s arrival at Litchfield Penitentiary rings truer to the notion of sitcom-as-ensemble that James L. Brooks and Alan Burns pioneered 40 years ago. It turns out that being a single careerwoman in the free world has less to do with Mary Tyler Moore’s television legacy than we all imagined.
I submit credit for this tradition to the delicate performance Schilling has delivered to anchor the chaos around her with humanity and, in Lou Grant’s words, spunk. Like Mary and Mary, Taylor and Piper tackle some of their show’s least colorful beats. But even at Piper’s darkest, most unstable and ambiguous moments, creator Jenji Kohan has given us a loyalty-engendering face of warmth and familiarity to trace through the journey, a rock at the center of her kooky solar system. And it’s not just Schilling’s bright eyes and prison-perfect hair—both she and Moore are naturally adept at telegraphing integrity, reason, and inner empathy. I root for Piper to make it after all because, however the plot challenges me to question her values, I trust that she has them.
This comparison struck me Emmy nomination morning, when Schilling was announced as a contender for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy, the category Mary Tyler Moore has dominated to this day across two iconic sitcoms. The Internet conversation swiftly focused on the Guest and Supporting Actress categories, where four of Schilling’s castmates will vie for statues. These are moving, hilarious, lived-in supporting characters who deserve to be acknowledged. But would Kate Mulgrew’s scenery-chewing, like Cloris Leachman’s, have felt right without Schilling’s restraint? Would Natasha Lyonne’s character have popped in season 1 if Piper hadn’t so desperately needed a Rhoda?
Moreover, as Orange unfolds into season 2, we witness Piper gaining a kind of dawning agency Carrie Bradshaw’s circumstances never required of her. In the beginning, Schilling’s earnest hunger for approval from authority causes her first meeting with Sergeant Healy to read like Mary Richards’ job interview with Lou Grant, but how those relationships change. Mary and Piper both learn to stand their ground and speak their minds, while their actresses navigate the subtle awakenings with an elegance between the lines. Mary and Piper are connected by their irrepressible growth toward identity in yet-uncharted circumstances. It isn’t easy being pretty, after all. Then what?
In a memorable arc, Mary Richards spent one night in jail (defending her First Amendment right to protect a news source) during which she politely asked for a toothbrush, and met prostitutes who alarmed her to the very core of her Presbyterian manners. The episode—called “Will Mary Richards Go to Jail?”—is one searing connection between the two heroines whose very names beg the same question. “Piper Chapman…Jail?” could be an alternative title to the Netflix series. It’s impossible to understate what a critical part of the show’s excellence is stored not in ancillary arcs and broad cultural themes, but in Schilling’s improbable presence onscreen.
It would seem gauche for a think piece not to focus on the host of diverse stories represented in the series. Much ado has been made of the barriers between race, sexual identity, socioeconomics, and age that Orange destroys. Much internet ink has been spilled applauding the variety and depth among its cast. But what of our Wonder Bread heroine? Let’s talk more about Taylor Schilling, a leading lady who totally gets that it’s not about her, an effortless dance that requires great skill.
One might wonder how a performance that headlines a smash series and has collected Emmy and Golden Globe nominations possibly could be considered “underrated.” The very nature of Schilling’s brilliance, like Mary Tyler Moore’s, however, is her knack for knowing how and when to fade into the background. It’s the subtlety of her upright posture, the openness of her expressions. She doesn’t always get the punchline or the dramatic breakdown, but Schilling soldiers along as the unassuming lead of a dynamite ensemble we often find ourselves discussing instead. And she deserves an Emmy for it.
Litchfield Penitentiary is not WJM News, and this is not a one-to-one proposition. But the bottom line is, for Orange to work, we need to believe in Piper Chapman as a kind of Mary Richards. To fit that tall order, the role requires an actress with the gifts of Mary Tyler Moore. While Netflix devotees attach themselves to Emmy bids from Uzo Aduba and Laverne Cox, my heart is with Taylor Schilling, who could turn the world on with her smile.
After all, who wouldn’t throw their pie for Mary Richards?