Taking steps is easy. Standing still is hard.
In many ways, the brilliance of “Orange Is The New Black” can be summed up by analyzing the brilliance of the show’s theme song, Regina Spektor’s “You’ve Got Time.” At first listen, it’s raw and aggressive and simple and angry and fast and confrontational and loud. But then it opens up, and rather than allowing the garage-punk energy that fuels the majority of the song to stick with you, it’s that pretty, short-lived refrain that you can’t get out of your head. It sneaks up on you — a flash of addictive genius that spans eight words and two sentences. The melody is catchy, yes, but it’s those tiny words that end up occupying the largest portion of your mind.
So it goes with Netflix’s most recent leap into the relatively unknown world of original content that until the last year or so has been reserved for only traditional television. None of this would really matter, of course, if the show wasn’t really that good. But it is. And boy, oh boy it is. This would be the moment where I would turn to the Greatest Writer In The World Not Writing For The Washington Post Anymore, Lisa De Moraes, but because her new gig at Deadline didn’t provide us with any “Orange Is The New Black” insight, we will instead settle for Hank Stuever …
“‘Orange Is the New Black’ feels like Netflix’s first real home run since it famously entered the scripted-series biz,” he wrote a couple months ago. “I realize some people couldn’t get enough of the contorted ‘House of Cards’ this year, and that the ‘Arrested Development’ niche is still dizzy from their group binge in May, but ‘Orange’ is the first series in which I’d almost insist that viewers upgrade to streaming service and come along for television’s seemingly inevitable future delivery method.”
OK. Let’s settle down with that, now. You can get as good as “House of Cards,” but you can’t get better than “House of Cards” (or, well, at least as long as Robin Wright is still showing off that fantastically perfect haircut, that is). Hyperbole aside, though, Stuever continued with a pretty accurate observation …
“Watching the show, one begins to realize that all the good parts for women truly have been kept locked up somewhere; now, here they all are, free (in at least one sense) to be portrayed.”
Yes. And yes. It’s one thing to break TV ground on a fundamental level, but it’s another to make sure that the ground you’re breaking is actually worth paying attention to from an entertainment standpoint. “Orange Is The New Black” is smart. Not once does it become a novelty, and that’s a hard thing to accomplish when the thesis of your story reads like this: New York socialite heads to prison a billion years after she committed the crime of running drugs from one end of the world to the other. New York socialite is bisexual and predictably narcissistic. New York socialite is an entitled fish out of water. Jason Biggs shows up. Hilarity ensues. Rinse. Repeat.
Actually, maybe the series’ insistence on not falling into a predictably lazy trap is what sets the show apart from, well, pretty much any other original scripted series television has going today. The fact that it succeeds on so many different levels makes you sort of want to root for the whole thing to work. In a TV landscape that is currently obsessed with men as consummate anti-heroes (shameless plug: Check out this “Breaking Bad” project I contributed to!), we now find a group of women who make us feel every bit as conflicted as Don Draper ever did.
Do you root for Piper to make it through her stint in jail unscathed, ready to see her engagement through? Or as you see the rapport between her and Alex play out, do you root for that romance to stay kindled? And then, when everything falls apart, do you blame her for how she manipulates everybody around her? Or do you feel sad because her life is falling apart? And by the time the season wraps up in what could be described as only epic (and I hate that word), do you worry for her safety, moving forward, or do you think she deserves all that comes to her?
Oh, and by the way … That’s only Piper.
The greatness of “Orange Is The New Black” lies within the supporting players. In fact, even though we know it’s all based on the real life Piper’s memoir, it hardly feels like she’s the main character for the majority of the time (which is good, because even though Taylor Schilling gets progressively better as the season goes, she’s a bit tough to take at first). Crazy Eyes might be my favorite character in the history of women prison dramas produced by Netflix (and kudos to the show to bump her up to a full-time cast member for season two last week). Red is fascinating, and while her’s might be the most flashbacked-to story so far, it still feels like there’s so much more to learn. Tiffany is a lightning rod of a personality. Lorna’s plans for her wedding pull at your heartstrings with fish hooks. Nicky is a complete and utter rock. Mendez is so detestable that if I didn’t know he was Nicky from “The Wire,” I might hate that actor forever. Yoga Jones is Patti from “Doug” and provides a surprising amount of levity whenever she shows up. Taystee is just the best. Miss Claudette is impossible to ignore. The list goes on and on and on and on and on.
Better yet? The show is actually funny. I need two hands to count the times I shot a text message to the fabulous Michael Hunley each time a moment gave me an honest-to-goodness, genuine laugh. It happens at least once an episode and it sneaks up on you at the times you least expect it. Co-creator Jenji Kohan has a very distinct and very sharp wit when she decides to use it for good, and there are jokes within jokes that almost accidentally make you chuckle. Don’t blink, or you’ll deprive yourself of some undeniable laugh-out-loud instances, from the disgusting to the absurd, or from the tender to the insulting.
To be fair, Kohan’s presence is a bit of a double-edged sword: Any fan of “Weeds” swears that the drop in quality from the earlier seasons to the latter day episodes was a drop too drastic to endure. As for now, though, why worry about the things that could go wrong tomorrow when what’s happening today just seems so pitch-perfect? Between “House of Cards,” “Arrested Development” and now this, Netflix has set an awfully, awfully high bar for web-based original content. I tried as hard as I could to hate “Orange Is The New Black,” and it took me about eight-and-a-half minutes to realize my reservations would be impossible to carry with me as I ventured through this warped, crazed world of what makes up a life in a women’s New York state prison. If you are still resisting Big Red’s streaming service, this thing alone is worth the eight bucks a month.
Remember: Taking steps is easy, and standing still is hard. Quit being bound by the parameters of traditional television-watching habits. Take that step toward the future. Once you get there — and as “Orange Is The New Black” proves — you’ll never want to stand still again.