TV TATTLE

Orange Is the New Black departs as the most important TV show of this decade

  • Forget Game of Thrones: The 2010s will be remembered for the impact Orange Is the New Black had on the TV medium, says Judy Berman. "Kohan’s timing was perfect," Berman said in pointing out the unusual leeway granted to the Weeds creator by Netflix in its early days of creating original series. "Brought to bear on her expansive vision at a critical moment in the rise of streaming, that freedom yielded a series that smoothed the transition from cable’s 2000s golden age to the vibrant and diverse, if fragmented, era that’s come to be known as Peak TV," says Berman. "More than a bold experiment in representational sleight of hand, Orange became the most influential show of the decade." OITNB had an impact on everything from binge-watching to TV diversity. "Orange broke that mold in just about every conceivable way," says Berman. "When it came to representation, this wasn’t merely the first prestige show since The Wire built around poor and nonwhite people—or the rare program intended for a general audience that featured more than a token queer regular. It also endowed each of these characters with stereotype-­defying specificity....The show’s mix of gallows humor and high tragedy disrupted genre categories to the extent that the Emmys moved it from comedy to drama between Seasons 1 and 2. And over the years, its unflinching depiction of the American justice system has both mirrored and catalyzed intensifying debates around mass incarceration, private prisons, systemic racism, economic inequality and police violence against people of color." Berman adds: "Orange is the most important show of the decade in part because it wears its import so lightly. Though the moment when it felt truly audacious has passed, it just keeps experimenting."

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    • It's hard to state how much an impact Orange Is the New Black had on TV diversity: "Six years ago, conversations about diversity and representation had yet to become the lingua franca, in part because Orange had yet to start them," says Alison Herman. "People of color, LGBT people, immigrants, and the disabled are not a trend. These communities predate any single show, as does art representing them, as does the desire for more of said art. But Orange did more to thrust these issues into the popular consciousness than any single show before or since. In contrast to a white, straight, and male default, the volume and confidence of Orange’s unconventional casting stood out like a yuppie Brooklynite in a prison. Orange didn’t just have a female protagonist; it had almost exclusively female roles. Orange didn’t just have black, queer, poor, or Asian characters; it had several of each, ensuring none were forced to stand alone or play mouthpiece. Orange didn’t dip its toe into inclusive storytelling; it dove in headfirst."
    • OITNB's conclusion marks the end of an entire era of TV storytelling on a large scale: "With each successive season, the show opened up more and more, trying to depict a widening swath of American society and, eventually, the world itself," says  Emily Todd VanDerWerff. "The final season deals with immigration issues in the US, and in so doing, it confronts the kinds of issues that might drive people from around the world to try to enter the US illegally; watching it, I was struck, again and again, by how Orange Is the New Black started as the story of one woman and eventually became a show with so many regular and recurring characters that it could never hope to conclude all of their stories in one 13-episode season of television. TV shows simply don’t have this kid of ambition any more. As episode orders shrink from 13 episodes per season to 10 to eight (or fewer!) and as dramas increasingly tend toward smaller stories told over single seasons rather than bigger, more sprawling stories told over many seasons, they no longer have the time or space to match Orange Is the New Black’s level of world-building and scope."
    • Orange Is the New Black began with a simple deception and ends in a state of revelation: "The deception was to trick viewers into watching a series about black and brown women, most of them poor, by using an upper-middle-class white blonde as bait," says Melanie McFarland. "The revelation is — actually, make that revelations, plural — is that most of us ended up caring more about their varied circumstances than we did about that white girl."
    • OITNB taught us what Netflix was for: "It had some of the markers of old-school network TV but the specificity and scope of premium cable," says James Poniewozik. "It was nuanced and ambitious, but also broad and unpretentiously bawdy. It was dedicated to telling underrepresented stories. It was something else, and it spent seven seasons establishing exactly what."
    • OITNB granted Netflix the prestige it has now: "House of Cards had come before it, a drama that could have been on Showtime," says Kevin Fallon. "But it’s OITNB that played with tone, structure, theme, pacing, morality, and inclusivity in ways that defined Netflix while shattering the television landscape as we knew it. And it’s on that latter point we want to focus. The acting on OITNB, most of it done by women in their first major television roles, has been the most impressive on TV during its seven-year run. Tour de forces by veterans like Kate Mulgrew, Natasha Lyonne, Taryn Manning, Laura Prepon, and, in Season Two, Lorraine Toussaint built the show a solid foundation. A mesmerizing, undersung turn by Taylor Schilling as one of TV’s trickiest characters made it exciting. But the breakout turns by Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, Yael Stone, Selenis Levya, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Diane Guerrero, and so many more made watching the show a thrill. But it’s Danielle Brooks’ work as Taystee that I want to talk about. It might be my favorite performance of the last decade."
    • OITNB changed female narratives on TV: "It didn’t just normalize the success of female-led TV shows; it illustrated that a series devoted to many female stories could be compelling enough to draw in viewers from all around the globe," says Arielle Bernstein. "...Certainly, there have been successful television shows that center on a group of female characters before this one; shows such as Sex in the City, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Girls have all offered compelling looks at what it means to be a woman in the world. But the Orange Is the New Black’s appetite for telling multiple stories about varied female characters, many of whom come from marginalized communities, is what has ultimately made its success revolutionary."
    • OITNB is the first series explicitly designed for the streaming era: It's still one of the best at taking advantage of the freedoms offered by this brave new programming world
    • OITNB went beyond industry bragging rights, helping push criminal justice reform and transgender rights to the forefront of the national conversation
    • Jenji Kohan wraps up OITNB with the most focused, funny, emotional and indignant season in years
    • The weight of having to to wrap everything up wears on OITNB's final season: "For as impossible a task as tying every loose end is, these last 13 episodes acquit themselves fairly well," says Caroline Framke. "But repetitive flashbacks and a couple hugely ambitious new plots unbalance the season and cause the series to make a shakier landing than it might have with some sharper focus."
    • Season 7 sticks the landing: "For a while now, it’s felt as though Orange Is the New Black had come off the rails a bit; its performances continued to be great, but pieces of it began to feel unnecessary," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "At its best it was as compelling as ever, but at its worst in the last several seasons, it was too slow, focused on characters with no particular draw, and telling stories that often went nowhere. But in season seven of Orange Is the New Black, the show’s last season and also one of its most ambitious, the train is firmly and unerringly back on the track."
    • The final 13 episodes offer an enjoyable, funny, and often cathartic journey
    • How OITNB became a star-making machine: Laverne Cox, Ruby Rose, Uzo Aduba, Danielle Brooks and Natasha Lyonne are among the cast members who are seemingly everywhere these days
    • Danielle Brooks' performance as Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson is what made OITNB so fabulous: "Even surrounded by an ensemble blistering with talent, Brooks was always one of the most exciting things about Orange Is the New Black," says Soraya Nadia McDonald. "She was originally hired to play Tasha for two episodes before getting promoted to a recurring role, and by season two she had secured a position as a series regular. Showrunner and creator Jenji Kohan has spoken repeatedly about using the character of Piper Chapman — a sheltered, thin, liberal blonde who came from a family of means — as a 'Trojan horse.' She was a device that allowed Kohan to tell the stories of women who had been disenfranchised and forgotten — women like Tasha Jefferson."
    • Executive producer Tara Herrmann: "We didn’t want to give too much false hope" in the series finale
    • Jenji Kohan was "terrified" of wrapping up OITNB: “I didn’t have a specific vision, because I was mostly terrified," she says. "How do you wrap up seven seasons of this? And, knowing myself, it’s never going to be good enough. It’s never going to be totally right."
    • Kohan remembers being sold on Netflix's "all-in" straight-to-series model that bypassed the pilot process: “Here was a network that was willing to buy an entire season at once and fund it and support it,” says Kohan. “There was nothing better in my mind. I had gone through years and years of pilots, and (for them) to say, ‘We’re going to support your vision through a whole season’ was an amazing opportunity. It had a real budget and a team that was really into it, so I wasn’t thinking in terms of ‘No one will see it’ or ‘It’ll only be on the web’ or whatever. It’s like, ‘I get to make this.’”

    TOPICS: Orange Is the New Black, Netflix, Danielle Brooks, Jenji Kohan, Kate Mulgrew, Laverne Cox, Natasha Lyonne, Tara Herrmann, Taylor Schilling, Uzo Aduba, Series Finales



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