Tuned In

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.

  • Share
  • Read Later

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?