I haven’t been as swept up in the whole “Orange is the New Black” thing as almost everyone else with whom I have come in contact during the last few weeks, be they television and media critics, network and studio executives, or ordinary civilians ranging in age from mid-teens to retirement-ready. But it has been quite a while since such a dramatic cross-section of my personal and professional acquaintances has been so singularly focused on a new series. Of course, that’s just casual observation, and certainly not grounds for identifying a program as the best of anything.
So why am I asserting that “Orange” is the first true hit for Netflix, without benefit of traditional research and audience measurement, the details of which the streaming and DVD service does not make public? Wouldn’t “House of Cards,” the handsomely produced political thriller starring Kevin Spacey -- which recently reaped a whopping nine Emmy Award nominations -- be the more obvious choice? How about “Arrested Development,” which was also acknowledged with Emmy nods and had fans of that long-ago Fox franchise squealing with delight when Netflix brought the show back from the dead and served up a fourth season? For all we know, “Hemlock Grove” might be Netflix’s biggest performer to date, given that it’s a horror show from genre master Eli Roth.
They’re all more logical choices, but I’m going with “Orange,” specifically because it does not have any of the built-in advantages enjoyed by the three series named above, yet seems to be generating just as much talk as any of them, if not more. It doesn’t have a star of Spacey’s magnitude at its center. It isn’t a can’t-lose continuation of a series that has been much-missed by a rabid, ever-growing cult following. And it isn’t located in a genre that practically sells itself on big screens and small.
And so it is that all the fuss over “Orange” is about as pure as it gets, owing 100% to writing, direction, production values and acting, and almost nothing to hype, except for the blazing word of mouth that has made this the must-see series of the summer, at least for those people who subscribe to Netflix or know somebody who does. I have yet to watch all 13 episodes, partly because I have been traveling for most of the summer, partly because I have never cared for movies or television series set in prisons -- and largely because I rarely give over to the increasingly fashionable trend of binge viewing. I prefer to watch most shows one episode at a time, savoring each before moving on to the next. If I’m enjoying it, what’s the rush?
Though I have only seen a few episodes, I think “Orange” is a fascinating follow-up project from writer-producer Jenji Kohan, the creator of Showtime’s “Weeds” and a showrunner of uncommonly singular talent. It’s almost a companion piece, in that it explores what might have happened to Mary-Louise Parker’s pot-selling suburban mom Nancy Botwin in “Weeds” had she been sent to the slammer. (Nancy did do time in prison between seasons six and seven but viewers weren’t invited along.) In a star-making turn, Taylor Schilling plays Piper Chapman, a modern woman sent to a medium security prison in the present day for transporting drug money ten years ago for her former lesbian lover. Schilling is surrounded by an incredible company of actresses playing her fellow inmates, with the estimable Kate Mulgrew a standout.
The show “Orange” most reminds me of is “Lost,” which was also about a group of people cut off from the lives they had been leading, grappling with the complexities of their own humanity as they adapt to hostile new surroundings. “Orange” is a comedy-drama hybrid, and therefore lighter than “Lost,” but it shares that adventure-drama’s most distinctive narrative construct, frequently (and very skillfully) time-shifting to the characters’ past lives to illuminate the people they are today.
Significantly, “Orange” is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining, shedding light on the absurdities, inconsistencies and atrocities inherent in our prison system, which drains an unthinkable amount of money from state and federal budgets with almost no appreciable return. Locking away dangerous criminals is one thing; imprisoning one-time lawbreakers who have never harmed anyone and aren’t career criminals is quite another, or so this series seems to suggest. But it is first and foremost a character-driven story in every sense of the word. Coming at a time when so many television networks are responding to concept over characterization, “Orange” is a one-of-a-kind treat, whether or not viewers choose to devour it all at once.