Friday, July 26, 2013

"Orange is the New Black" is Netflix's Most Impressive Work Yet

I had little to no expectations for Orange is the New Black in the weeks leading up to its premiere on Netflix.  Although I was much more positive on season 4 of Arrested Development than many critics, I found House of Cards so generic that I stalled around episode 8, and the universal panning of Hemlock Grove kept me away from ever even giving it a try.  Needless to say, I hadn't been that excited about Netflix's foray into original programming, especially when their only success was the continuation of a pre-existing property.  Further hurting matters was the fact that the show was by Jenji Kohan, who's most known for creating Weeds, a show that I was never particularly a huge fan of.  Its prison setting just seemed to serve as an extension of the direction that the latter seasons of Weeds took, so I was just planning on skipping the show altogether.  The rapturous praise that it got after critics received early screeners for the first three episodes was enough to convince me to at least sample the show, and I'm glad I did, because Orange is the New Black is a staggeringly brilliant, life-affirming piece of television.

The show opens on the story of Piper Chapman, an upper-class white woman who finds herself in jail because of her involvement in a drug ring 10 years ago, and although we follow her throughout the course of the season, it's very clear that she's just an entry point to the larger narrative that Kohan is trying to create.  The Litchfield prison is such a fully-realized world, filled with characters who could easily be the protagonists in their own right.  In a television landscape that's so white male dominated, it's refreshing enough to see women of all races and positions on the sexual spectrum, but the fact that they're all fascinating makes the show even more remarkable.  Over the course of 13 episodes, you'll seriously lose count of how many complex, interesting female characters there are on this show.  I've seen a few complaints about the opening credits, but to me it seems like the central idea of the show, presenting all the varieties of people in this world with equality.  In a way, the show is all about widening Piper's worldview and in turn, ours, by proving that everybody has a story to tell; not just you.  The show presents these women as having troubles like anybody else -- both petty (the jealousies of jilted lovers) and soul-plumbing (a transgendered woman not being able to get her estrogen pills).  Yet it also does a wonderful job of not making the prison be a wholly grim place.  The 6th episode, "WAC Pack," has frequent instances of the tiny joys one can find in such a situation: having an impromptu freestyle battle, finally getting the bathroom all to yourself, skirting off with somebody you like, etc.

Structurally, Orange is the New Black is just as bold and daring as it is with its characters.  The show employs the use of flashbacks, but not in the same way that Lost did, where the flashbacks functioned as a backbone to an episode.  Instead, they are used in a more free-form way, being sprinkled on when needed.  With so many characters to serve, things could feel overstuffed, but somehow it never does, as episodes can devote large chunks at a time to an individual storyline, before smoothly picking back up on a smaller story and just rolling along.  Eventually, the show reveals itself to be a surprisingly deft long-form narrative -- character details become larger plots, but the plot still largely exists to further these characters.  Even on a show like Mad Men, which is the best show on TV, people complain about how a season doesn't have enough Joan or Peggy or Roger.  What's most impressive about Orange is the New Black is just how many characters get a complete and satisfying arc by the end of the season.  The best episodes, like "Moscow Mule" or "Tall Man With Feelings," frequently feature separate plotlines converging and playing off of each other.  Others, like "Bora Bora Bora," are able to pull off the difficult balancing act of being really funny while also featuring incredibly dark material.  With all of these characters, storylines, and tones to balance, it all precariously approaches falling apart at any moment, but everything remains tightly bound together.

But it all comes back to Piper, who may not be more important or interesting than the scores of women on the show, but is at the center of it all.  "Blood Donut" is a perfect example of this, as it shows the collateral damage that is caused by Piper getting what she wants.  She may help somebody, but she also hurts another that she ultimately didn't have to in the process.  As Piper, Taylor Schilling gives a great, increasingly twitchy performance in the role.  Where another actress could've made this character extremely unlikable, Schilling is able to find the humanity in Piper, even when you often want to strangle her for her myopia and naivety.  Time and life function differently inside and out of prison, and Piper changes in ways that her family and friends can't understand.  Piper's season arc is one of the more clever aspects of the season, in fact.  Throughout the first half, it seemed like she was poised to have a breakthrough, becoming more aware of the world around her, just as the audience is.  Most of the second half, however, features her backsliding and becoming entrenched in the flaws deep within herself.

Part of this journey comes from her entanglements with her ex and former drug partner, Alex, who further complicates her relationship with her fiancee on the outside, Larry.  There's a real frankness to the sex and sexuality, and it never presents this bisexual love triangle as something that's broad or goofy, preferring to depict Piper's feelings as extremely complex and matter-of-fact.  In general, Orange is the New Black is the greatest case of showing how people can contain multitudes.  Piper and Alex's conflicts have a lot of baggage that comes with them, and it never boils down to concrete right and wrong, because both of them have their own failings.  Even a character as loathsome as Mendez, the prison guard, can have moments of humanity, like when he stands up for Sophia in "Lesbian Request Denied."  At the end of the day, although these individuals are in extreme circumstances, people are just people, and they all act out of fear, anger, love, and loneliness.

It is in these moments where the show truly shines, and fortunately it's filled with many deeply human, powerful scenes.  Take "The Chickening" for instance, which somehow finds strange beauty in everybody's quest to find a chicken that's rumored to roam the prison grounds.  It's something that could easily be a goofy runner, but ends up being a thematic backbone about hope in a largely hopeless place.  Orange is the New Black is a depiction of people trying to exist within a system that often overlooks them, and many of the stories ("Tit Punch," "Imaginary Enemies," "Blood Donut") are all about being unwanted.  That's why the story of Taystee is so moving, because everybody hopes to be released from prison, but when she does get out, she quickly realizes that jail time didn't equip her for the real world, and the system is almost designed for her to fail.  The last stretch of episodes in particular feature a fantastic level of emotional accretion, leading up to a Christmas pageant that should feel hokey, but is just overwhelmingly beautiful.  Like in season 4 of Arrested Development, the final shot is a striking one, and it leaves the viewer with tons of possibility for the next season.  Everything leading up to that scene offers enough to stew over as well, and it's likely that I'll still be unpacking this first season -- which I had no anticipation for, but ended up being floored by -- for months to come.  I never thought that the woman who created Weeds would make a show that would make me a better, more thoughtful person, but here is Orange is the New Black, easily one of the best shows of the year.

1 comment:

  1. Just finished it, ridiculously addicting.

    Surprised you never mentioned Red or Nicky, two of the best characters on the show IMO. I personally think Nicky is the most relatable character on the show.

    Some of Piper's actions seem arbitrary throughout for me though (I'm not happy with the decision she makes in the finale regarding Alex}. I'm also curious to see where the show goes if that decision, and the resulting consequences actually stick because that was such a core part of the show.

    Not to mention whatever the results of that final moment will be.