'Orange Is The New Black': The Year's Best New Show?

With the eleventh episode, "Orange Is the New Black" took a great leap forward. I think I underestimated the show's ambitions.
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I've got two more episodes of "Orange Is the New Black" to go before I'm done with the first season, but I don't want to watch them.

Actually, I do want to watch them, very much, but if I watch them, I'll be done with the season. If I finish, there will be no more new episodes. I won't get to spend any more time with the inmates of the Litchfield prison, and leaving that place has become a terrifying idea.

I'm writing this piece before I'm done with the season because I have to comment on where things stand now. I thought very highly of "Orange" out of the gate -- my initial review made that clear -- but with the 11th episode, I think it took a great leap forward. I think I underestimated the show's ambitions. It's far more serious and affecting than I thought possible.

Sidebar: I'm not going to call it "OITNB" for short because, as someone pointed out, that sounds like the acronym for a boy band. Also, in this post, I'll write about the show in a non-spoilery way at first, but then I'll get into some specifics about the first 11 episodes. I'll warn you before you get to that part.

For various reasons, it was hard not to approach "Orange" as something of a satirical gloss on the prison experience. Did I assume it wouldn't necessarily go deep because Jenji Kohan's previous show, "Weeds," was more overtly pitched as a comedy (at least in the earlier seasons)? Possibly. Did I think there were limits on the "bourgie white woman in crisis" genre because it has been inconsistent and, well, limited thus far? Yes.

But I think "Orange" has been especially canny about how it's played with our expectations. Of course the characters were going to seem like types at first, and "Orange" had some fun with the broader aspects of prison life. Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) did seem crazy. The brusque Russian cook did appear to be very tough and intimidating. The loud characters like Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) were often cranked up at first, all the better to entertain viewers with their floridness and to freak out Piper (Taylor Schilling) as she made her way through her first weeks in the slammer.

But as the episodes progressed, the show deftly gave each of these people a context and a history, and as each new piece of information slid into place, "Orange" quietly became even more compelling. Three-quarters of the way into the first season, there are charged depths to a whole host of relationships, and even though there are still comedic moments, the show has been willing to go to some dark places.

Now I'll talk about some specifics from about Episode 9 onward.

orange is the new black

Piper's time in the SHU -- the isolation wing -- was an indication of how seriously the show is taking her prison experience. The character may have started out as an oblivious, entitled urbanite who realizes just how clueless she is (a common character in TV and films) but by the time she ends up in solitary, we know her as an individual. Like the prisoners and guards around her, she has become specific, and thus her terror is more palpable and affecting.

What's amazing is that the show was able to balance Piper's harrowing brush with the SHU with its usual buffet of absurd, knotty and comedic moments. "Orange" makes it look easy to perfectly set up so many different kinds of stories -- from romance to drug addiction to extortion to "Scared Straight" satire -- but I'm sure it's very far from easy to keep all those plates spinning.

If there's one thing I love it's a fictional world that seems real, concrete and tactile right down to every detail, and "Orange" has given us that, and more than a dozen fantastic characters besides. I'd watch an entire show about Sophia (Laverne Cox), Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) or Red (Kate Mulgrew) -- and that's just for starters. But nothing really prepared me for the sucker-punch of Episode 11. The hour took us to task for our voyeuristic tendencies even as it delivered a series of hammer blows to various characters. It all felt earned; it was all beautifully and subtly set up, and it was crushing in the best possible way.

It began with the mild comedy of Larry (Jason Biggs) continuing to exploit Piper's inmate status to further his career as a writer, and the sweet, sincere scenes of the funeral for Tricia (another character who became memorable, specific and not a little tragic in just a few short scenes). The plot about Dayanara's baby continued to develop -- and her mom seems to be less of a selfish jerk with every episode. And the soon-to-be-reluctantly-seduced Pornstache struggled with the fallout (public and private) from Tricia's death.

That was all good and all up to the show's high standards, and then the episode lowered the boom, via Larry's radio interview.

Constantine Makris's fine direction made you feel the sense of quiet concentration and even hope that the inmates felt as they tuned into NPR. The whole point of the jail experience is to make sure that these people are unheard and unseen by much of the world, but here was a respected media outlet taking the time to tell their stories. You could see it in their faces: It made them feel like they mattered.

The funeral for Tricia was also a wonderfully calibrated scene-setter for the radio interview. It made every character seem more human, and there was a beautifully bittersweet flavor to the way the community came together to pay tribute to one of their own. They're all still weird and difficult and messed up in their own distinct ways, but the prison is, ultimately, a community, and it's that feeling of belonging that will allow the strongest women to survive. By telling Larry such treacly or one-dimensional stories about them, Piper didn't just betray them as individuals -- she betrayed everything they'd done as a group to forgive her transgressions and make her one of them.

The NPR segment's ultimate impact was painful, but I love how there was a comedic element to the interview as well (which was a spot-on parody of certain public-radio tics and traits. No, that guy didn't come off like Ira Glass at all). The interviewer wanted to have his cake and eat it too: He wanted credit for paying attention to marginalized poor women, but he also wanted to get his kicks by hearing about prison rape and lesbian sex.

He couched his questions in smarty-pants language -- he mentioned pop-culture tropes, he grew serious at the thought of the Less Fortunate -- but his entire approach was patronizing. He didn't care about these women as individuals or see them as adults with lives as complex and important as his own. As is the case with many of us watching the show, his interest in prison life contained many elements: Honest curiosity, a little prurience and a healthy dash of smug satisfaction. It's as if he was saying, through his questions, "Well, I didn't end up there. But the people that are there ... what kind of sex do they have?"

This sharp, smart sendup of liberal piety -- and the accurate diagnosis of what drove a certain amount of initial interest in this show -- was amusing and a little shame-inducing. When "Orange" began, were my attitudes toward these women any different from the radio host's? Probably not. But now I know them, and my heart broke when I saw the betrayal they felt. Who ever would have guessed that the emotional state of Crazy Eyes -- Suzanne, I mean -- would hit me like a ton of bricks?

It's not wrong to feel a little ashamed when your snap judgments turn out to be cruel and self-serving -- it's a good thing. But Piper was not only incredibly ashamed, she was now in danger. The community she joined won't forget this casual betrayal.

And when she turned to Larry for answers, or comfort, or clarity, all she got was anger and pain. I didn't expect their conversation to land as hard as it did -- Larry's been stuck in one of the show's lighter and less fascinating story lines -- but somehow it was devastating for them to realize, as the radio host so accurately noted, they weren't special. Prison was destroying their relationship, so Larry, gripped by an understandable desire to lash out, tried to destroy the comfort that Piper and Alex had found together.

The last third of the episode -- the radio interview, Claudette's fury, Suzanne's pain, Larry's hurt and anger, Piper's confusion -- was one of the best things I've seen all year.

I cannot wait to find out what happens next. But I don't want to get out of jail yet.

I've already written too much, so just a few more quick notes:

  • In every single episode, Taylor Schilling is called upon to play a great range of emotions, dramatic and comedic, and I think it's safe to say that she's just crushing this role.

  • Laura Prepon is similarly fantastic as Alex. Underneath the cool-girl exterior is a whole lot of pain and loneliness, and Prepon has done a wonderful job of subtly bringing those notes forward.
  • Claudette hugging her old friend and Suzanne crying in her bunk have to be two of the show's most devastating moments. I'll say it again -- I love that this is a true ensemble and each character gets his or her moment in the sun.
  • Oh man, the look on Dayanara's face when she realized she'd have to sleep with Pornstache again. As if she wasn't nauseated enough.
  • I miss Taystee so much. I want her back.
  • How great is Kate Mulgrew as Red? Now you know why I watched every single episode of "Star Trek: Voyager."
  • On Twitter I declared that I wanted a fan convention for those who are addicted to "Orphan Black" and "Orange is the New Black" -- a weekend for OrFans to enjoy each other's company. I'd pay actual money to attend this. Somebody please arrange it, pronto.
  • One more time: The podcast Ryan McGee and I recorded about "Orange" is here and below:

    "Orange Is The New Black" Season 3

    "Orange Is The New Black"

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