10 Reasons You Should Be Watching Orange Is The New Black

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Netflix has done it again. Not only do they have another hit original series with Orange is the New Black, but their shows seem to be getting stronger and stronger following the previous successes of House of Cards (which made a splash in the recent Emmy nominations announcement), and Arrested Development, which was coolly received at first but after critics had time to digest it found it overwhelmingly positive. I’ll leave it to others to speculate on whether this Netflix model is sustainable or not and whether they could potentially become the next HBO or whether they’re a fad that will be replaced by the next big thing whatever that ends up being.

What I can speak to, and what there seems to be growing consensus around, is that Orange is the New Black is the finest series Netflix has produced and released to date. It’s also its most popular so far. Interestingly, the subject matter of the show, taking place inside a women’s federal prison, is not far off from HBO’s first original series Oz, which was about a maximum security prison. So Orange feels very much like a nod to the HBO show as well as a modernization of its content for a changing culture and streaming television demographic. It also feels like a small comedy-drama, but like Breaking Bad, takes a world that feels small and expands it through its ideas and cast of characters to draw universal conclusions and make wide-ranging observations about the justice system, gender issues, and human relationships all while keeping a dark sense of humor and replicating the tension and unease of a prison setting.

Here are 10 more reasons you ought to binge-watch the crap out of Orange is the New Black ASAP.

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1) It’s so much better than its promos suggest

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Like plenty of other avid watchers, I had heard a bit about the series before it came out, and saw some of the TV spots and YouTube trailers for Orange is the New Black upon its release, and thought, oh, so Jason Biggs and Donna from That 70s Show are heading up this new Netflix series about prison? Cool, but I think I’ll pass. Then I heard that Jenji Kohan was behind it, and I liked Weeds until I got bored with it, so I took slightly more notice. And then the reviews and articles came pouring in, the vast majority of which were overwhelmingly positive.

I realized it’s a hard show to promote. Really, it’s a good thing the response to it, the word of mouth promotion in particular, has been so consistently enthusiastic because it doesn’t have a really catchy or sexy hook despite the quantity of lesbian relations it features. Its star quality is relatively modest, and its prison setting, at least to me, sounded a bit tired.

An upper middle class woman getting busted for drugs sounded too much like Weeds. But that changed once I was probably about three episodes in. The first episode, to be sure, is incredibly strong, and grabbed me from the very real and deeply emotional yet beautifully underplayed scene between Jason Biggs and Taylor Schilling, who plays our protagonist Piper. The world only expands from there, and the breadth of characters combined with the depth of their individual and collective stories is remarkable, albeit tough to capture in a 30-second spot. So if you’re hesitating, as I did, based on the lacklustre promotional material, know that there’s so much more to Orange that you will find it hard not to fall in love with.

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2) It’s Jenji Kohan’s followup to Weeds

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Weeds was a show that took a brilliant premise, stretched it to its extremes, and perhaps ran on a little longer than its best before date. I was a big supporter of it for about five seasons before becoming occupied with other shows that had become of greater interest. It had an excellent run and possesses a legacy that is sure to be understated, despite being one of the most popular Showtime series of all time. It sucks that it’s still necessary to emphasize this but having a female showrunner on an award-winning and popular new cable TV show was and is an important thing, and makes the world better.

I went over some of the reluctance I had toward Orange is the New Black, specifically that it seemed like territory that Kohan herself had already explored, even though I hadn’t seen the seasons of Weeds where Nancy goes to jail. But I’ve come to realize that this was all a product of my own stupidity. Jenji Kohan is the real deal, proving herself as a wonderful storyteller and the furthest thing from a one hit wonder. She has an ability to create more memorable and resonant characters in a single series than many people are capable of inventing over an entire career, and this is more apparent than ever in the ensemble nature of Orange. Among other things, and I realize this may not be her doing but would have had to be met with her approval making her ultimately responsible, she has a knack for beautiful opening title sequences. Orange’s opening is perfect for Netflix in that it becomes richer the more you watch it, and with Netflix, you’re going to watch it a lot over a short period. The faces paired with the Regina Spektor song work wonders, and the rest of the show lives up to that standard.

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3) Taylor Schilling is all kinds of adorbs

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She had previously appeared as the lead in the Atlas Shrugged movie, the Zac Efron picture The Lucky One, and someone (ironically) named Mendez in Argo (because Mendez is the name of this douchey prison guard in the show, ah forget it). So needless to say, I had been unfamiliar with Taylor Schilling’s work prior to Orange is the New Black. I’m now a big fan of her work, at least in this show.

When I say I find her adorable I don’t mean in the “aw, ain’t she cute” way, although she is able to draw that reaction with a blink of her eyes. I mean that you can’t help but adore her; she seems on the outside like someone you’d dismiss as privileged and probably self-serious and uninteresting and humorless, but this is the great conceit of her casting, because she reveals herself as the opposite of all these things.

I had read prior to watching that she was one of the weak parts of the show, and while I was persuaded by that view at first, she eventually won me over. Actually, she won me over for a little bit after that scene in the first episode that I mentioned earlier, but she continued to win me over over and over and over as she continued to handle all these difficult scenarios and tricky matters of tone with seeming effortlessness. I came to the conclusion that any irritation I had with her was a reaction to the character of Piper having some irritating qualities—you know, like a real person you might know. Schilling doesn’t make her into Randle McMurphy but instead exposes her flaws and makes her likeable and relatable in spite of, or enhanced by the realism of, those flaws. It’s impossible to determine whether the show matches the tone of her acting or vice versa, but either way, they are an ideal fit.

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4) You get to see Jason Biggs masturbate again!

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Let’s be honest, this is what anyone who hears Jason Biggs is co-starring in a new series wants to see, right? Ok, maybe not anyone. But just know that he does and we can move on from there. Because it may very well be the high point of the series for him. Indeed, if there’s one thing about the show that I don’t care for, it’s the Larry character portrayed by the guy from American Pie. I don’t find that his incredulous disposition fits the material well and he ends up serving as the naggy spouse more than anything, unable to appreciate his wife’s desperate situation because his own is inconvenienced by not gettin’ some.

But then I got thinking, maybe this is an interesting reversal of the cliché wife character in shows and movies that is almost always underdeveloped and usually annoying in how selfish they seem when really they’re the only sane person in the show (ok that last part may not apply to Larry). I thought of the way many people react to Skyler White in Breaking Bad or Carmela Soprano or Dexter Morgan’s various love interests, most notoriously Rita. Viewers complain about them, but they’re kind of essential, even if in some cases they’re not fleshed out terribly well or portrayed by weak acting. The point is they perhaps don’t receive the care and attention from their creators as they ought to. But for once, the husband fits that mold. And in terms of leveling the playing field or turning the tables or whatever, this is a feature of the show I can live with.

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5) It has perhaps the best ensemble cast of any show right now

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Ensemble stories are very much the domain of TV: the time-spanning format allows for many characters to really be fleshed out fully over the course of multiple seasons. Some of the most beloved shows in recent history like The Sopranos, Lost, The Wire, and Six Feet Under to name a few are revered for the broad range of characters they introduce us to, and for the outstanding cast of actors they bring together to breathe life into what ends up feeling like a group of real people. Kohan was able to do this on Weeds with the likes of Mary-Louise Parker, Justin Kirk, Hunter Parrish, Elizabeth Perkins, Kevin Nealon and many others.

She outdoes herself with her cast on Orange, though. I already spoke on the central performance by Taylor Schilling, but it doesn’t even feel like the central performance at times, instead feeling more like one among many standout roles. Some of the finest work is done by Kate Mulgrew as Red, Pablo Schreiber (who was in The Wire) as Mendez, Michael Chernus as Piper’s brother Cal, Natasha Lyonne as Nicky, and so many more that others have highlighted. A couple stand out in particular for me. There’s Laura Prepon as Piper’s old flame Alex; her mix of ironic distance and sarcasm with a quiet, subtle vulnerability is devastating. Then there’s Yael Stone as Morello, who is planning her wedding for when (if) she gets out, and Stone plays her with an irresistible innocence that you can’t help but feel intense sympathy for. This is one of the best-cast shows to come around in some time, and it handles its immensely talented collection of performers admirably.

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6) It features some terrific rivalries

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Red versus Mendez. Alex versus Pennsatucky. Piper versus the world. Orange is the New Black is full of conflict, from minor tiffs to rivalries that drive the plot for much of the season. The racially divided factions that form the prison’s segregated makeup are rarely the source of much tension at all. The big rivalries occur either within these factions or between inmates and guards. The chess match between Red and Mendez is some tremendously engaging stuff; it takes place mostly in the latter section of the season after Red has endeared herself to us, and so we’re heavily invested in her struggle against the injustices and abuses at the hands of Litchfield’s most corrupt guard. It’s a war based on mutually assured destruction, and the ending is surprising and necessarily messy, and not really an ending, because that’s the type of show this is.

Piper has run-ins with just about everyone at some point, from Red to Crazy Eyes to Alex to Miss Claudette. The biggest fight she has is with Pennsatucky, and it sort of starts out as Alex’s fight that then extends to Piper over the course of events that are worth watching rather than explaining. Pennsatucky’s deluded religious prophesying is a source of a great deal of resentment in the prison as well as in the audience; we come to see her as almost the show’s biggest villain, and then in classic Orange style they show us some of her story and situation and we come to have at least a little bit of sympathy for her plight as we do with everyone else. But her strong personality and Alex’s impatience for bullshit and then Piper’s growing resentment toward the entire prison comes to a head, and the unresolvable differences result in the most shocking moment of the series to this point. I know the show’s billed as a comedy, or comedy-drama, but it’s this intense, dark stuff that it’s at its strongest and most captivating.

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7) There’s a variety of fantastic female characters

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It’s unusual for a television series to feature a single interesting female character, let alone a plethora of them the way Orange does. I can’t stress enough how rare this is, and how great it is to see a female-driven ensemble show executed this well. There are even more incredible characters that I haven’t even mentioned yet that contribute to this cavalcade of crazy making up the Litchfield prison environment. There’s Yoga Jones, who I almost mistook for Edie Falco, but is an amusing character until we hear her heartbreaking story. Crazy Eyes is full of surprises, some crazy and some oddly poignant. Taystee has some of the show’s best one-liners. One of my favorites might be Boo, a large lesbian inmate who takes on wives and adopts pets and is, hands down, the best dancer in the prison. She is so much fun in every scene she’s in.

And it’s not just that all these females are features, and are quirky, or whatever. It’s that they feel like real people, who have had real experiences and are products of those experiences. As the show progresses we learn more and more about the experiences that shaped them and led them to Litchfield, and every single one offers insight into exactly why the character is the person they are, and why they act the way they do in prison, and the flashbacks routinely subvert what we thought we knew about each individual. So it’s not their mere presence and oddities but the depth of the development and expression and feeling behind these women that makes them all so valuable, and that extends to the entirety of Orange is the New Black as a valuable show.

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8) It contains many valuable life lessons

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Lesson number one: if you work as a guard at a women’s prison, bring a condom to work, because if you develop a relationship with an inmate with whom you decide to become intimate, you’re going to want to bag up to avoid a world of hurt. This is apparently something Mendez has learned before (which says everything about him) and something John will hopefully have learned from his mistake (which says everything about him). The implications this has on a few character’s arcs in the course of the season are profound. I mean, I guess the alternative would be to not bang any of the inmates over whom you’re supposed to be on guard, but let’s be realistic here.

Other lessons Orange is the New Black teaches us: don’t insult the food in any cafeteria you’re eating at because the cook could be sitting right next to you and refuse to feed you for an extended period following; the most absurdly devout religious practitioners are also very easily manipulated for comedic ends; some guys are apparently really bothered by their girlfriends having lesbian affairs (who knew?); being alone for too long will make anyone go crazy—anyone; and lastly, prison can look fun in isolated occasions, but it’s a real bitch, so probably best to avoid at all costs.

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9) There aren’t many shows with strong transgendered representation

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Many critics and cultural watchers are rightly identifying the presence of Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black as one of the series’ greatest strengths, and it’s really emblematic of what the show stands for as a whole. So many of the stories it tells are about people that are sadly underrepresented in media, and its commitment to diving deep into worlds with which many remain personally unfamiliar is crucial. The results of an enormous influx in gay and lesbian representation in TV and movies are abundantly clear today, with the culture showing massive shifts in support of and awareness about gay rights issues. Transgendered characters like Sophia in Orange are just as vital. So that’s another thing it deserves some kudos for. I’d say more but I feel ignorant about it in a way that makes me even more grateful for shows like this.

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10) It’s the most talked about new show this summer

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Even more than House of Cards and Arrested Development, Orange is the New Black has inspired a host of opinions on its first season. Right now there’s probably more being written about Breaking Bad because I mean come on, but next in line has to be Orange, with the real Piper Kerman, on whom the story is based, and Jenji Kohan and various cast members appearing in countless interview segments on TV and in print. So if you like keeping up with all that sort of coverage like I do, it’s a show you should watch as soon as you’re able, and as I hope I’ve established, once you’re into it, it’s a blast getting through to the end.

I know that there’s already so many acclaimed shows to catch up on that pushing another one on people has the potential to overwhelm. There are so many that I have yet to see myself. But at the same time, keeping up with current shows seems like so much less of an ordeal than trying to catch up with a show that has many years’ worth of episodes to watch, doesn’t it? The crop of new shows in the summer specifically are always rather sparse, and one this good is relatively rare. So all I’m saying is this show has staying power, it will probably be around for a while, it’s on Netflix which makes it very easy to breeze through on a lazy day, it has a pleasant blend of joyous fun and well-felt feelings that I guarantee will make you feel, and you need to know that everyone is watching it without you so what’s the deal? Your time is more important than ours? Do you think you’re better than us? That may be true, but I would still recommend Orange is the New Black as a way of understanding the common folk better. Watch it so we have something to talk about.

 

 

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