Nearly a decade ago, Netflix took a chance on a prison dramedy that sought to fundamentally change our perception of women living behind bars. It was a big swing for a still-in-its-infancy streaming platform that was already swimming against the tide of weekly network formulas, a practical hail-mary when you considered who and what the show was about.
We’d seen prison dramas on TV before, of course, but those were testosterone-packed prestige outings and cliffhanger-infused escapist plots — shows that almost solely focused on male, often white, protagonists with a hand so heavy, we’re surprised the words “awards bait” didn’t come stamped on every episode script. But Orange Is The New Black was different, other, a rare unicorn of a show that dared to expand the kind of characters and storylines we’d come to expect from the “prison genre.”
It’s just too bad we never quite knew how to define it.
There are differing opinions on when the word “dramedy” emerged as a catch-all term for TV shows that failed to conform neatly to the boxes of “comedy” and “drama” that awards voters had long used to qualify them. Some might point to Norman Lear, others to Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting but few shows have asked us to question the methods by which we categorize stories on TV quite like OITNB. In fact, early in its run, the acclaimed Netflix series faced serious issues earning a spot at the table come awards season because voters just couldn’t decide how to define it.
A mix of gallows humor and intense, heartwrenching character beats, OITNB used its main character, a WASP from New York City named Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), as a “trojan horse” for the more interesting, radically progressive storytelling it desperately wanted to tell. Chapman was a well-to-do white woman, about to serve time for her involvement in a drug smuggling case that took place a decade prior to the start of the show. Her fish-out-of-water status in those early episodes helped us all acclimate to the jarring realities of life behind bars — the cold showers, the strange bunkmates, the threat of a graphic reminder lurking in your morning English muffin should you insult the line cook. Chapman was a privileged elitist, performatively woke but woefully ignorant when it came to her own prejudices, something that grew more grating as time went on — but she’s also how most of the humor that helped to establish those first few seasons of the show was mined and delivered to audiences.
After all, the average viewer tuning into Jenji Kohan’s semi-biographical examination of the prison industrial complex had never stepped foot in this kind of closed ecosystem before. Maybe they were expecting a gladiator-style arena with dangerous women constantly at each other’s throats, or the kind of line-drawing gang wars that seemed to populate so many male-centric sagas behind bars. Instead, they were treated to something revolutionary — and authentic, unexaggerated peek into the domestic squabbles and inhumane injustices that didn’t feel all that removed from everyday life.
But it was Piper’s “babe-in-the-cell-block-woods” attitude that sold that introduction, at least comedically. We laughed as she bemoaned the very real possibility she might be forced to brawl with an elderly Russian cook with back issues, we cringed as she endured the Shakespearean love sonnet enthusiastically performed by Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba). We may have even felt a twinge of sympathy before snickering at how she was forced to clean up someone’s bodily fluids with generic maxi pads. And if the inherent comedy, the situational ridiculousness of that initial run blinded us a bit to the trauma and hardship these women faced, subsequent seasons made sure to remind us that OITNB was funny, yes, but it also packed a hell of a dramatic punch.
The show achieved that feat in a variety of ways. Its biggest change was diverting attention away from Piper’s continuous struggles to acclimate and divvying it up amongst a cast whose diversity still feels revolutionary to witness on TV, even eight years later. We learned more about these women with Kohan relying heavily on flashbacks to give their stories weight. We connected with Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) as her struggles with addiction and an uncaring mother were laid bare. We broke for Poussey (Samira Wiley) whose strict military upbringing conflicted with her choice in romantic partners. We felt as frustrated and disillusioned with the notion of the “American dream” as Sophia (Laverne Cox) when she resorted to credit card theft in order to pay for her hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery. We questioned everything we thought we knew about the bubbly, lovable Morello (Yael Stone) when it was revealed she’d fabricated a happily-ever-after ending with her ex that saw her breaking into his house, taking a bath, and trying on his wife’s clothes.
Kohan has said these flashbacks were a way to break up the monotony of shooting, a way to give her cast a chance to break free (metaphorically) from behind bars a bit during the months-long filming schedule. But they also challenged the expectations that accompanied the comedy label the series had been saddled with. We weren’t just laughing at the bizarre antics of Crazy Eyes — now we were coming to terms with how inherited prejudice and outdated ideas about mental illness can have lasting consequences on those who need help the most. We weren’t just cheering on Red (Kate Mulgrew) as she chased down chickens and put prisoners in their place — we were beginning to understand the insecurities and mob-like mentality that followed her from her days working a deli and storing corpses in the freezer for the Russian mafia.
Women we initially labeled as unlikable proved they were as layered and complex as the main players, deftly switching from comedic to dramatic beats within single episodes, or drawing those reveals out with longer-running arcs. From Piper and Pennsatucky’s (Taryn Manning) divine showdown following a Christmas pageant-gone-wrong to Suzanne’s final lines despairing that she hadn’t done enough to prepare her prison chickens — who had been used to traffick drugs by other inmates — for life on the outside, OITNB consistently displayed its knack for blending the kind of searing, undeniable pathos of other prestige dramas with the bleak, oddball humor you’d expect on a show whose only currency was laughs.
That might be why awards shows like the Emmys had such trouble deciding where these women with their raunchy humor and emotional gravitas, their ability to deliver scathing indictments of the prison pipeline one minute, before using a days-long prison riot to start their own Youtube channel the next, belonged. In 2015, the Emmys decided to label OITNB a drama, despite its success in the comedy category two years prior. That decision came on the heels of other dramedies like Shameless, Glee, and Jane the Virgin, successfully appealing to be considered in the comedy category, despite their hour-long run-time.
The outrage may have felt needlessly sill at the time. After all, OITNB went on to become the only show to win in both the Comedy and Drama categories at the Emmys with Uzo Aduba earning hardware for her performance as Suzanne in both categories in back-to-back seasons. But it did matter. It mattered then because the switch-up meant OITNB would compete against dark, dramatic epics like Game of Thrones and cerebral political offerings like House of Cards, which felt like an unfair lineup of worthwhile TV to be compared to. It matters now because, nearly a decade later, we still don’t know how to define OITNB, and the many shows that have followed in its footsteps — at least when it comes to critical recognition.
When we think of Atlanta or Dead To Me, of Killing Eve or Fleabag, we face the same dilemma that haunted OITNB its entire run. Are they comedies, dramas, or something in-between, something that nimbly toes the genre line to create new means of storytelling and new opportunities for underserved voices to be heard? We should be rewarding these shows that defy convention — often at the expense of critical accolades come awards season — because the more they’re recognized, the easier it is for more of their ilk to get the green light.
Netflix and OITNB may have changed how we think of comedy, drama, and the complicated stories of women who behave badly but we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to critically acknowledging that change. Hopefully, for the shows that follow in its footsteps, we won’t take so long.