When Orange is the New Black first became available on Netflix, one could almost feel the wave of deserved critical praise that washed over podcasts for months afterward. It was like riding the Tidal Wave roller coaster at Six Flags Great America–exhilarating, breathtaking, and then, over. Most critics felt obliged, rightly so, to only address the first couple episodes lest they ruin anything for those of us struggling to play catch up.
“Orange burns with the kind of laughter that usually only comes after tears; it’s audacious, shocking, intimate, and intense,” applauded Grantland’s TV critic Andy Greenwald. Normally a curmudgeon on the topic of the Netflix bingestrution model, Greenwald admitted that for a moment he believed maybe the new delivery structure might work. ”For the first time, bingeing seems like a good idea, if only because I can’t imagine the cupboards ever running bare.” Truth be told, the levy never did run dry; the show, as Alan Sepinwall acknowledged, blossomed. “Some shows are smart and deep and engrossing enough to be watched at any pace, and “Orange Is the New Black is absolutely one of those,” he wrote in his review of the first season. “My only objection to having watched the whole season in a couple of weeks is that it means I’ll have to wait that much longer before I can see the next one.”
By now you know the story. As karmic punishment for her illicit youthful exploits, creative type, Smith graduate, and blond WASP princess Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) ends up sentenced to fifteen months of jail at the minimum security Danbury prison. An ex girlfriend sold her down the river in a deposition and now the engaged Piper must navigate the American prison complex. “In different hands, this might be a cringe-worthy premise: a vanilla cupcake wedged in among the down-and-out and the black-and-brown,” suggested the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum. “But the show blows [Piper] Kerman’s anxious, observant memoir wide open, presenting her perspective as merely one within a kaleidoscope of experiences.” Indeed, as Sepinwall, Nussbaum, Greenwald, and many others noted, the show’s strength lay in its ensemble cast. Filled with talented female character actors from across the racial and ethnic spectrum, Orange let them explode off the small screen. From Taryn Manning’s inspired Bible thumping formerly meth-addled Pennsatucky to Samira Wiley’s Poussey Washington to Uzo Abduba’s Crazy Eyes, show runner Jenji Kohan (Weeds) enabled them all to occupy center stage, in the process bridging discussions of sexuality, race, class, and the fact that life, in the end, really doesn’t give a shit about us, which is why we have to.
The show’s exploration of sexuality—binaries, spectrums, and everything in between—set it apart from nearly everything else on television. “There are more lesbians here—butch and femme and of every ethnicity—than in any other series on television,” Nussbaum and others noted. The Root’s Tracy Clayton pointed out that the series took it one step further by embracing broader categories of queerness. “How awesome is it to see an actual transgender woman playing the role of a transgender woman?” she exuberantly noted in reference to Laverne Cox’s character Sophia Burset.
As the show gathered critical mass, most critics stopped at the metaphorical waterfront, not wanting to delve too deeply before everyone had a chance to digest the show. Even in his season-ending evaluation of the show, Sepinwall praised it effusively but gave only passing mention to the final episode’s conclusion, which one could argue stood at great odds tonally with the show’s arc. This is not to say it wasn’t good—it was, but just that what would have been a central point of discussion never came to be. If you only read the early reviews, you’d never know the first season’s ending involved a possible homicide, a distinct tonal departure from the series’ general narrative. Nusssbaum even noted in her initial review of the show that Orange refreshingly did not depend on the usual tropes regarding prison violence and sadism so common to a show like Oz (maybe even the Wire with its brief glimpses of incarceration) but rather propelled itself forward on more character-driven lines. In this regard, the show toyed with audience expectations; as Nussbaum notes in an early scene between Crazy Eyes and Piper, Orange “slyly builds up the audience’s appetite for savagery, then upends it with something graphically sexual, in a sequence that is sure to gross viewers out.”
This brings us to the main point. Orange is the New Black deserved the blast of attention it received and the debate it sparked regarding issues of sexuality, incarceration, race, and class all intersected and diverged in useful ways. Even those who hated the series provided compelling arguments as to why. For example, Aura Bogado pushed back against the love heaped on the series, asking why Piper’s tale proved worthy of broadcast when Assata Shakur wrote a book about her ordeal as the only woman in an all-male jail, but no one was beating down Shakur’s door for TV or movie rights. As the first woman on the FBI’s most wanted list, Bogado pointed out, her story would be compelling. Bogado pushed further, framing the show’s use of Piper as a form of modern day abolitionist slave narrative, in which the lives of black fugitives could be verified and authenticated through white experience. “It’s 2013, not 1861, and we don’t need Piper Kerman or anyone like her to substantiate what we already know,” she wrote in the Nation. Though not as militant and clearly a fan of Orange, the Root’s Clayton admitted she and others at once hated and loved Piper. Hated her for her ignorance of white privilege and the world outside New York; loved her for how the show demonstrates that her failure to grasp her racial and class advantages impair her as person while still allowing her to deliver “truth to power” soliloquies regarding male and heterosexual privilege.
Whatever one thinks of the merits of Bogado’s argument or Clayton’s sketch of Piper’s character, both deserved to be further debated and hashed out. However, it would seem that this never occurred. People mentioned it, but the show’s rollout and the way everyone consumed the first couple episodes, then quickly went quiet after the initial burst of enthusiasm, blunted a more fruitful discussion of this issue and others.
For example, over the summer ToM tweeted with Grantland writers and podcasters Emily Yoshida, Tess Lynch, and Molly Lambert after their discussion of the series. Several observers in addition to Bogado had noted that to base a series on a middle class white woman in jail, when much of the prison population comes from poorer, often non-white backgrounds, seemed somewhat perverse. ToM asked if we would always need a middle class white avatar into these sorts of discussions or one day will we be able to bridge such issues via a woman of color. (While obviously a much, much different show, Kerry Washington’s ascendance on Scandal suggests perhaps sooner than we think.) In response, Emily Yoshida admitted it was a topic worth discussion but one that best wait until more people had time to watch the entire 13 episode arc.
Let me provide a different example so as to see how perverse the lack of discussion regarding Orange is. In a recent article, Alex Pappademas offered an instructive comment on how one might fix Boardwalk Empire. “After three and a half seasons, it’s pretty clear Boardwalk Empire has nothing up its beautifully tailored sleeve,” he asserted. People weren’t staying up late nights musing to themselves about the fate of Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson or the show’s broader message about antiheroes, capitalism or really anything else. In the end Boardwalk Empire “remains premium-grade pulp, written and acted and directed by people who know what they’re doing.” Yet, the show still has recappers, parodies, and a cultural presence that even reaches Sesame Street. Sure, the new season’s addition of Jeffrey Wright and its exploration of intraracial class and ideological tensions have delivered a more striking narrative but Boardwalk Empire continues to glide across the surface rather than delve the depths of cultural analysis. Why then does a show devoid of this kind of depth receive the attention that it does, while Orange and the issues it addresses remain muted behind worries about spoilers and audience viewing habits? Perhaps the blame lay in the distribution model, critics’ fear of offering hated spoilers, or that the show’s issues remain ones that Americans find uncomfortable. Maybe it is all these things or none, or something else all together.
I have no idea what Orange’s final episode might mean or even how it ultimately ended. The final scene gave one the impression that Piper, pushed to her limits by a system that cares little for the individual, cracked and in the process went from a petty criminal to desperate murderer. This kind of transformation, if indeed it occurs, imbues the show with more Wire-like meaning. As articulated by Monkeysee’s Linda Holmes in a recent Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, the Wire focused on the morality of institutions and how they often overwhelm individual morality. Undoubtedly, if the Wire is about anything, creator David Simon made it a stark commentary on power of institutions, their culpability for today’s urban America, and the questionable normatives they put forth. Could Orange be offering a new take on that theme or something completely different? Then again, maybe that’s all wrong. I don’t know, but I want to know, and the only way to figure this out is revive the discussion. With the new season only a couple months away, maybe Nussbaum, Clayton, Holmes, Greenwald, and others might take up the mantle. I hope so, a show this challenging deserves a debate worthy of it.