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Dead Tree Alert: Orange Is the New Black Is the New Way of Talking About TV

Netflix's newest and best series is powerfully about community. But it's also, for better or worse, changing the community of the TV watercooler.

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Spoiler alert: This post includes plot points from throughout the first season of Orange Is the New Black. If you want to read my more-general, less-spoilery thoughts on the series, here’s a link to my column from the latest TIME (subscription required). Or just scroll down to the boldface line several paragraphs below, where I say it’s safe to start reading again:

There’s a remarkable sequence in the eleventh episode of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black in which the scope that the season has achieved is laid out, and the events of the season’s ending are partly set in motion, by of all things, an NPR interview. Piper’s fiancé Larry has sold the story of their long-distance relationship, first to the New York Times and now to an Ira Glass-like public radio show, as if he sees the jump-starting of his writing career as deserved restitution for being left alone for 15 months. Prompted by the host–who, when Larry first broached the idea at a Thanksgiving dinner, was more interested in prisoners’ stories than Larry’s–he shares some of of what Piper dished about he inmates over the months.

And–surprise–just about everybody in the prison is listening, including a horrified Piper.

It’s a revealing sequence in several ways, each of which illuminates a different aspect of why this 13-episode season was so damn good. First, because it plays with the way we might expect this kind of scene would play out in a drama about prison–indeed, it plays against the way the scene might have played out if it were in the first few episodes of Orange Is the New Black. It’s not just about Piper landing in a world of trouble with pissed-off inmates. Yes, some of them (like Miss Claudette) are furious to hear how Piper described them. But there’s a whole range of reactions: some are jazzed to hear about themselves on the radio, and Red, in the kitchen, seems mildly touched. Orange rarely goes in just one, obvious direction with a plot turn, and this is another example.

Second, the scene underscores just how much the show has broadened and deepened its characterizations over the previous ten episodes. Larry’s descriptions are a little smug and simplistic and patronizing, which is both an expression of Larry’s perspective in particular and prison outsiders’ in general. But they’re not inaccurate: or rather, as far as we can tell, they’re probably a fairly accurate rendering of what he heard from Piper, when he heard it.

Many of them—her fear of Miss Claudette and Crazy Eyes, for instance–were probably things she shared with him earlier on, when she was at her lowest and most freaked-out. His very broad paintings of the inmates are the same ones we saw early on, more or less, in the beginning of the series. They’re broad, but not just because they’re double-filtered through his perceptions of Piper’s perceptions. They’re broad because one way inmates survive prison is to present the broadest, toughest versions of themselves first. (It’s telling, I think, that we learn in the pilot it’s prison custom to introduce yourself by your last name, not your first.)

In a way, the NPR scene gives us a kind of time-capsule summary of the various characters the way we, and Piper, first met them, as refracted through everything we’ve come to know about them since. We know now–as does the mortified Piper–that there’s a lot more to a lot of these women. Hearing it played back now, and watching the various prisoners hear it, serves a plot purpose–holy crap, what’s Larry gotten Piper into now–but it also shines a light on what a big, complex world the series has created, akin to the camp in Deadwood, without being too obvious about it. As the show has become less about Piper, the artisanal Brooklynite gentrifying the jailhouse, it’s become about a vast range of women’s experience, a catalog of how lives can go wrong and how people try (or not) to right them.

Finally, it’s another example of how well the series shades its characters and their motivations. Larry is pretty despicable here–dining out on Piper’s ordeal, oblivious to the possible repercussions for and among real people–but he’s despicable in a believable way. The season has amply shown that it hasn’t been easy for him, and career ambitions aside, I believe on some level it honestly helps him to talk about this, and that however condescending some of his talk is, he thinks he’s being liberal-minded and understanding. (And too, as he lowers the “hypothetical” boom on Piper’s involvement with Alex, we see he’s not necessarily in the best emotional frame of mind.)

That’s one more thing about Orange. There are plenty of bad people here. There are plenty of scary people here–both inmates and jailers. But nobody is simply, uncomplicatedly bad–even Healey (though he reaches out-and-out villainy at the end) or Pennsatucky (a bit of a backwoods-holy-roller stereotype, but still one with an involving backstory).

OK, spoiler-avoiders can start reading again here:

I might have written more about that after I watched the episode. I might have written several posts, throughout the season: about the fantastic performances (Kate Mulgrew, Natasha Lyonne, Michelle Hurst, Uzo Aduba); about how the show upends the structure of antihero-cable-TV by dealing not with criminals trying to fight the law but the long period after the law wins; about how it manages to combine searing drama and hilarious comic bits like the best seasons of Rescue Me did; about the stunningly matter-of-fact way it uses the prison to create one of TV’s most racially and sexually diverse–and as important, complex–dramas; about how the show contrasts the power and class dynamics inside the prison with those outside the prison. (One of my favorite moments in the season is when the new female guard realizes she used to bag Piper’s groceries at Fairway supermarket; Piper, of course, would always say she forgot her cloth bags, ask for paper, then find her cloth bags and ask for all her groceries to be re-packed.)

But I’m not sure who would have read them, or how many people, or when, because–given the Netflix option to binge or ration the entire season–everyone watched the show at their own pace. I might have written a series of episode reviews, as some sites have, and people could have caught up with them when they were ready, but that wouldn’t have made for the same kind of conversation as when, say, we all see the same Game of Thrones the same week. Or I could have–as with Arrested Development–done one big season review, but there would still have been the question of when would be too early and when would be too late.

It’s not just about readership and web traffic. You write reviews not just to hear yourself type but to enter a conversation. And with a Netflix series, I’m still figuring out when and where that conversation is. So my column in Time this week is partly a review of Orange, with one eye on readers who’ve already seen it and another on those who haven’t watched at all. And it’s partly about how Netflix-style distribution, while convenient and liberating, also makes it trickier to figure out how to talk about the seasons, and when, and with whom:

This is a new, viewer-empowering way of premiering TV, and judging by Netflix’s 14 recent Emmy nominations for House of Cards and company, it’s here to stay.

But it also—even as social media have made shows like the camp classic Sharknado more communal than ever—upends the principle of watercooler TV: that we see the same things at the same time. the most dedicated Breaking Bad fan will not know Walter White’s fate before you do. Whereas a Netflix season is like a dark maze; we may enter around the same time, but we exit, blinking, separately.

It’s not necessarily a bad change, but it is a change. And to me, this is not just a navel-gazing question about how poor TV critics should review shows. It’s about the potential for new distribution forms to affect the way we all talk about TV, even as, with social media, it’s been becoming a more communal experience.

So I guess this is as good a place as any to have all those conversations on this blog. Have you watched Orange Is the New Black? When did you watch it? And did you find yourself having, or following, as many conversations as you would have during, say, a series like Mad Men?

Oh yeah: and how did you like it?

17 comments
rgilkeson
rgilkeson

I watched ORANGE/BLACK over a 24-hour period (an unexpected free day). Liked it very much.  

 I think the book analogy is apt.   I watched it like reading a very seductive book, and felt that I had spent those hours experiencing a vivid, memorable, and intelligent take on an important subject.  Reading the book itself is taking much longer than watching the show, but offers a kind of reality (one hopes Ms. Kernan isn't lying about her experiences) that the fiction doesn't deal with at all...

Now that I'm reading the actual book I have a few questions.  The book suggests a much less daunting environment for the real Piper than fictional Piper endures.  It's fiction, duh.  However, part of my fascination with watching it was to think that much of what happened was only a little exaggerated for artistic purposes but mainly real.   

For example, in the book, Piper says something disparaging about the food and upsets a prison cook (they take some pride in their work Piper learns!).   However, in the TV version Piper is nearly starved to death by the vengeful cook.  In the book, Piper receives dozens of books, many letters, and visits from her many loving friends and relatives; none of this comes through in the video.  (The book suggests the prisoners have many reactions to her bounty: envy, admiration, awe.)

I'm just halfway through the book.  I'd like to hear what others think.  

Also, was the title of the show fully explained in the series?  I missed it if it did.  I found it in the book.  (A college friend of Piper's sends her a magazine photo with fashionable New Yorker dressed in orange.  The friend attaches a note mentioning the special website (designed to keep everyone informed about how she's doing) where her fans are urged to wear orange in sympathy with their friend or relative

Thanks for this opportunity to comment.  I loved JP's original long review for Time, am enjoying the comments as well.

I know I should have kept this short.   Sorry!

p.s. If you go to NPR's "Fresh Air" site you can hear very recent interviews of Piper Kernan (book author), and on the following day, an interview with the chief write/producer for the show.  I'm looking forward to listening to the former (found the latter fascinating--aired 8/13/13).

MaryJohanna6
MaryJohanna6

Loved the show, but see the up and down side of this concept.  Great not having to wait a week and yes seems that I got into the characters much deeper... but bad because I spent my entire weekend watching instead of doing other stuff like getting out and socializing... it was a tv weekend.

Sweeneybird
Sweeneybird

Small quibble - Sharknado can't really be classified a camp classic as it's only been out in the eWorld for a few weeks.

Phoenicia
Phoenicia

An Article from The New Statesman

The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing: On the need of hyperarticulate people to get raving drunk
The lives of six writers, and the reasons why they drank so much, are explored in this nuanced portrait which gives pleasure in every sentence and offers bright collisions with the past.
BY TALITHA STEVENSON PUBLISHED 25 JULY 2013 9:30

My Response:
      They were probably harassed and stalked into deep neurosis and addiction by an army of religious creeps who want to create lots of slander to dish into the world to sway the public opinion of an incredibly stupid audience who should have wised up to the pattern of abuse long before now. The same slander world currently rules our media, as is evident from this propaganda article one of many now brainwashing the public.  Someday, we will read the real story of how artists, composers, actors, musicians, and writers have been persecuted over the centuries by religious bullies who probably started their campaign against all dissidents by murdering the painter Raphael on Good Friday, April 6, 1520. Someday the creative community will be freed from these creeps, and we will have composers who are not deaf and can write more than 9 symphonies without being killed. Creative people of the world unite against the stalkers, saboteurs, murderers, and their slander!

jenny5555
jenny5555

Great post, James.  
I binge-watched Orange over 4 or 5 days, as i did with House of Cards. I find it impossible to resist the binging:) And i've come to realize I really like this way of viewing, rather than the delayed viewing in real time.
First off, I usually forget so much of the last season by the time the new one airs, especially with the long breaks of a lot of shows like Mad Men and BB. And I really do hate having to wait for the next week or next season.
Secondly, I really enjoy taking the story in at my own pace. As to the question of if you absorb or retain more watching in broadcast time, I think I actually I get more out of it this way; it gives me more of a continuous, holistic take on the story. And if it’s a show I really liked, like Orange, I’ll definitely re-watch it as some point, which I do with most of my faves I watch in real time.
As to the loss of the communal watching, I get it, but it’s not that different than the way it already is. It seems I’m always recommending shows, and vice versa, and everyone’s watching on different timetables, either DVR or netflixing. Since I like to read this blog, I’m often the font of info about gems others are missing, like Top of the Lake or Rectify. And then once they’ve viewed, you end up talking about it.
Like with Orange, I’ve been haranguing a friend to watch, and she’s now midway and it’s still great to talk about it, even tho I saw it a month ago.

Ashen
Ashen

The social component might be a slight problem, though to me it is negligible. An obvious advantage is that this distribution scheme gives the production team the opportunity to produce a whole season in one go from writing to filming to editing with no need to make most episodes up as you go. This aspect has the potential to make a major impact.

TobyKinnear
TobyKinnear

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Yatjeeca
Yatjeeca

I adore Netflix for having no ads whatsoever while in stream and viewing mode!! That' what makes binge-tv --- so cool! So new kid on the block of Hollywood and the TV industry networks..the game-changer kicker card on the big table! So good having to not worry about setting a box to record anything and again for having no commercial pop-ups or slide-ins, or flash-ups, brainwashing media from pharmaceutical, GMO, ultra-materialist, fast food bothersome, corrupting advertising that you have to close or shoo off to watch your tv. ORANGE BLACK (my nickname for it) is a top show!! Well-done! So glad to see Natasha Lyonne, Laura Prepon, Taryn Manning work it girls...all round good cast and acting. I find Crazy-Eyes' attraction to Piper so sweet and funny.  Makes me rage from feeling they're cute, creepy and funny, intriguing and then you remember their all some kind of criminal.  Pretty good all around. Watched it over a 2 week frame...started off bingey for 3-4 es then casually every other day. NPR eps was crazy!  I am thinking did that really happen?    To me the fact that quality viewing is available to me this way that is my choice, uncensored, advertising-free and at my behest, beck and call is effing awesome!!  the range of command you have makes it totally luxury-TV with occasional partying in-tonight binges. Again,  game changer...I'm all about shifting old paradigms.

vrcplou
vrcplou like.author.displayName 1 Like

I binge-watched, taking in the episodes over 2 days. I like the option of doing it this way although like a junkie, I seem incapable of rationing out my viewing if all episodes are available. And I loved the show - I watched it during a free Netflix trial and because of it ill be keeping Netflix. House of Cards is next. I've found that binge-watching does alter the experience. I'm rewatching Breakung Bad

vrcplou
vrcplou

Ugh, Breaking Bad - and I find I have a different take on Walt and Jesse when binge watching than I did when I watched the traditional way. I guess the week between episodes gave me time to forget some of specific very bad things they did.

arianahbutler
arianahbutler like.author.displayName 1 Like

I watched the series and found it to be a beautiful, complex and intelligent series. I watched it over time, over a couple weeks whenever I could squeeze an hour or two out of the day on my own. 

The Netflix formula of giving it to you all at once has people scratching their heads. I have heard some say that it won't work, and they will be forced to return to the way TV was intended to be consumed--- over a pre-determined time and with commercials. 

But I disagree. This isn't new. It isn't new at all. Because isn't this the way we consume books? At our own pace, when and where we want to and as individual experiences? And yet despite that, for years people have found a way to come together and join a conversation around a book. They have found ways to develop shared experiences, to debate and listen to other perspectives. This model isn't new and it isn't foreign. We have been doing it for years. 

PaulStevens
PaulStevens

I was thinking the same thing. Just like reading a book.

MillionsKnives
MillionsKnives like.author.displayName 1 Like

I've watched it all - amazing series. Exceeded my expectations more than I can believe (I originally just watched a few scenes with Kate Mulgrew in, as I'm a fan from her time on Star Trek. But those few scenes got me hooked! Not the boring female drama I expected it to be at all!)

However, I'm not a fan of Netflix's 'dump it all out at once' style. I'm happy I've seen the season, but I feel it loses something - having it all there at once, right off the bat. There no anticipation with friends, 'oh did you see last weeks episode?!', no time to reflect, mull it over, speculate, and get excited about what might happen. It's just done. And the conversation with friends turns into a simple, 'yeah it was a great series'. I really feel it takes away from the social experience of watching a series as it airs. Me and my friends have all watched it, and had no time to sit and share the experience as we go. Ultimately I think it does the series a disservice! 

Rberry16
Rberry16 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I loved it. It was absolutely engaging and real. I was blindsided by the shows potential to garner genuine sympathy in my heart for exactly the type of people I would normaly write off as trash. It would be easy to compare the show to Shawshank Redemption with the educated central characters entering prison terrified and alienated by there surroundings.

But I think there was a certain third dimension that SR lacked. In the film there's very clear ''good guys'' and ''bad guys''. OITNB goes in a completely different direction where every single character in the show has ambiguous motivations, just like in real life. Nobody is all good or all bad we all have our own path in life and we do the best we can with what we know. For Piper, friends become enemies, enemies become friends and she's constantly struggling with the possibility that she might have a lot more in common with her fellow inmates than she originally thought.

Overall it's a heartbreaking, hilarious, terrifying show that's bursting with originality and I can't wait to see more.

figmentno9
figmentno9 like.author.displayName 1 Like

I watched the series in three days and loved it! I think maybe they should pace their distribution just a bit. Maybe 5 episodes a week or something like that. because now I want more and know that is most likely going to be 9 months or more before that happens! But I love Netflix and love that they have begun great shows like this one.

anon76
anon76

I'm a die-hard AD fan, yet still haven't seen the new season of that show, so go figure.  My question is: do I finally, after 13+ years of waiting, cash in my chips and get my 1 month free of Netflix to watch AD (and possibly OitnB)?  Or do I continue to put it off, to the point that whenever I see it nobody will still want to talk about it (a point which I suspect has already been reached for AD)?  My family doesn't watch near enough t.v. or movies to justify a subscription (we don't have cable, and we've been out to exactly 1 movie in the last 4 years).  Who do Netflix think they are, changing the basic distribution contract between entertainment provider and customer?