It’s tough to be surprised by TV anymore. These days, the entire process of how a show goes from being an idea to something you physically watch while you’re tweeting about how much you hate it has become entirely transparent. Just look at San Diego Comic-Con: hundreds of movies and TV shows, all there for the tens of thousands of people who want to see every trailer, learn every NUGGET, remember every promo photo of Daenerys. We make up our opinions long before the title is actually on air , which isn’t such a bad thing if the product is Dads.
That’s one of the reasons why I love Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. Unlike the mega-hyped (deservedly so) House of Cards and Arrested Development, and to a lesser, but still existent degree Hemlock Grove, no one was talking about Orange. This was because of three reasons: 1) the premise (Prospect Park white girl goes to prison) was discouraging; 2) it was on Netflix, which doesn’t carry the same clout as HBO; and 3) Jenji Kohan. For its first three seasons, Weeds was one of the best comedies on TV: it was ballsy, fresh, and funny, which is also what I call my three testicles. Then it ran for five more, of varying degrees of quality but never again matching its early highs.
Then, last weekend, reviews of Orange began popping up on Twitter, from critics major, minor, and parody. They were all positive, glowing as bright as the jumpsuits in the promotional materials, so I decided to give the show a shot. I’m glad I did, because although it’s only July, Orange might end up being the best new show of the year.
With all due respect to Rectify and The Americans, it certainly is so far. “But c’mon,” I hear you crying out, “that white privilege premise, about an artisanal soap maker who gets sent to the slammer because she unknowingly carried drug money for her lesbian lover, played by Donna from That ’70s Show, looking like future Emma Stone, it sounds terrible.” First off, nope that’s the GREATEST premise, give or take the soap part. Secondly, Orange takes no time subverting every preconceived notion you have about a prison show, and then continues to do so for its entire run.
How? By making the show like Lost. Although the soap maker (a delightful, vulnerable Taylor Schilling) is at the center of everything, both in the prison and out via flashbacks, many of the other inmates get their own back stories, too. The prison is The Island, and we gradually learn how its occupants got there. There’s the post-op transgender, the madame of an illegal child labor cleaning service, the…well, I don’t want to get anything else away, but slowly, episode after episode, characters who would be Frightened Inmate #2 on other shows are painted as just as conflicted and fascinating as our lead. It’s a neat, fascinating trick, and makes for great binge watching. Note: once you start, you won’t want to stop — it’s like Arrested Development in that sense, except with AD, you wanted to learn how everything came together; with Orange, you like spending time with these people. (“These people” include Captain Janeway, Steve from Deadwood, Natasha Lyonne, Nick Sobotka, Laverne Cox, Waxey Gordon, “Traci Rearden,” and, most importantly, the voice of Patti Mayonnaise.)
But what really attracts me to Orange, and why I so strongly recommend it, is how new it feels. I like FX’s The Bridge a lot, a lot a lot, but giving Diane Kruger’s character aspergers-like tendencies was a massive mistake, at least so far. It’s an unnecessary gimmick, one that’s unfortunately become more pronounced in recent years. It’s not enough that Kruger and co-star Demián Bichir are solving MURDERS in MEXICO (that probably didn’t need to be capitalized), she also needs to have something “wrong” with her. Orange doesn’t stoop to such damaged tactics because of its setting; everyone there is kind of crazy, so crazy becomes the new normal. And as long as we’re on that regrettable phrase: LGBT, as well as racial, issues are handled in a non-preachy, enticing way, and here are other words I would use to describe the show because all I want to do is talk about it: hilarious, depressing, hopeful, CRAZY EYES, deadpan, humanizing, Jason Biggs masturbating, smart, and English muffin tampons.
Orange is the New Black is a rare surprise in a field dominated by FIRSTs and TOLDYAs. Put another way, all the XXX NSFW LESBIAN SCREWDRIVER DILDO (hey, Google traffic) is only the 47th most interesting thing about it.