I’m really, really late to the party on Orange is the New Black. I actually did watch the first season a few months ago but didn’t review it at the time because I was intending to subscribe to Netflix almost immediately and watch the second season. But life got in the way so I didn’t actually manage to get round to signing up until very recently. At which point (aided by a nasty cold and a couple of days off work) I powered through seasons 2 and 3 in the space of about a week.
Orange is the New Black is perfectly suited to this kind of box set binging. The series as a whole has an overall story playing out, with each season having a couple of undulating plots and themes and then each episode having its own story and focus. These all combine, sometimes uniting to synchronised crescendos and sometimes all dropping away to see the development that happens in the quietest moments. You might struggle to remember specifics of what has happened in the last few episodes, but you’ve actually learnt huge amounts about characters and seen shifts in relationships and power dynamics throughout everyone involved. The way each episode also focusses flashbacks on a particularly character and reveals more (but never all) of their journey to today is a brilliant structure.
The really impressive thing is the sheer number of characters involved in this. There are easily two dozen prisoners who come in and out of the central stories, some of the big players in season 3 were there only in the background in season 1, just waiting their turn. Then you’ve got another half dozen or so guards and a fair number of family members outside the prison. The ensemble is absolutely incredible. I assumed it was going to be all about the central Piper character, the ‘good’ girl who finds herself in prison for a ‘youthful mistake’ long in the past, but she’s really just the audience’s way into the complex community inside the prison. In many ways, she’s actually the least interesting character there and I often felt she was a weak point of the show, particularly when being used too heavily for the comedy.
That’s the real question mark for me over the show. Orange is the New Black initially presented itself as a comedy and garnering an Emmy nomination in the best comedy category). Latter seasons though downplayed the comedy though and I think it was to the series’ advantage. To be honest even the first season seemed more a drama with occasional moments of humour than a true comedy (pitting a series that included rape and suicide against Modern Family and Veep seemed pretty bizarre). The fact that its second season won a nomination in the drama category shows just how good it is, although the re-categorisation was in fact due to the Emmys changing their rules to dictate that comedies had to be half hour long, and the show lost its appeal to return to the comedy category (ref).
I’d also make my usual “I’m not a prude, but” complaint that the nudity is particularly gratuitous and unnecessary at times. It is completely limited to the female characters (even in the flashback sequences where there are plenty of opportunities for more balanced nudity), There are plenty of times that the nudity (and the sex, violence and language) are used to extremely powerful effect, reinforcing the vulnerability and lack of privacy the prisoners have, but by also using it just for needless reason undermined that power. Particularly when that was heavily loaded in the first episode, it just comes across as crass and an attempt to draw in a certain type of audience which will really not match the true audience for the show.
Orange is the New Black is one of those shows that comes along so rarely and sort of whacks you round the head, reminding you of just what great television is. It’s revelatory more than revolutionary, because nothing it does is really that original. Lost (amongst others) did the flashback on a character trick, plenty of series have been set in prisons, lots have blended very black comedy and drama , but Orange is the New Black is that rare beast that manages to bring all that together to be entertaining, interesting and really really really good. It’s worth the price of Netflix all by itself.