(Warning: mild spoilers ahead. I've tried not to give anything big away, but there are general references to the show's entire first season.)
Orange is the New Black, Netflix's new original series, has been garnering rave reviews from critics and general viewers alike. Based on the eponymous memoir by Piper Kerman, the show follows main character Piper Chapman, who carried a suitcase full of drug money 10 years ago while she was dating her ex-girlfriend, Alex Vause, who just happened to work for an international drug cartel. The series could have taken a squeaky-clean direction, with the sheltered white girl learning life lessons from the various women with whom she's in prison. Instead, the show sets Piper on the same level as every other woman in the prison. We, the viewers, understand that she's no better than them.
For that, and other reasons, Orange is the New Black is one of the most groundbreaking shows in a long time. Here's hoping that the show sets a new standard for the kinds of stories told both through streaming and on network TV.
1. The main character doesn't monopolize the show.
Piper (played by Taylor Schilling) is the heroine of the show. The story is structured around her discovery of the ways of prison life. Yet Schilling is hardly the most likable character. The viewers aren't made to take her life outside of prison particularly seriously; before she went to prison, she was working on a line of artisanal bath products. She's portrayed as selfish and needy in terms of her relationships with other people,particularly her fiance, Larry Bloom (as she's saying goodbye to him just before she goes to prison, she asks him to keep her website updated), and Alex, who's also in the prison. Throughout the show, Piper grows as a character, and we see her get farther and farther away from her life outside the prison, but her character's journey doesn't take up the entire story.
Instead, we get to see the stories of all of the background characters-- but here, they're hardly relegated to the background. Taystee and Poussey's friendship; Miss Claudette's struggle to win her appeal; Yoga Jones' explanation of why she landed in prison: the stories that Piper isn't directly involved in are still given time. Piper's story is a way for us to get into the life of the prison, but once we're in there, we realize every character has a compelling story.
2. There are characters of color ...
... and they aren't just token characters. True, the main character is a white, upper-middle-class woman. But the characters around here display diverse ethnicities and sexualities, and are allowed to share their experiences, even if those experiences aren't ones of privilege.
One of the most affecting scenes for me was when Taystee explains why it was so hard for her when she got out of prison. Instead of a job she knew (she works in the prison's library) and three meals a day, she was working a part-time job at Pizza Hut and struggling make ends meet. Her experience really contrasts with that of Piper, whose family and friends visit often and who's safe in the knowledge that she has a safety net whenever she gets out of prison.
3. Ladies of all sexual preferences.
Lots of preferences. Instead of the manicured lesbians of The L Word (or Pretty Little Liars, or Skins, the list goes on), we have a broad spectrum of gender and sexuality. Comedian Lea DeLaria plays an amazing butch lesbian called Big Boo and Uzo Aduba plays Crazy Eyes (aka Sue), who initially comes off as threatening but who the viewers and Piper eventually feel empathy for. Natasha Lyonne (who starred in But I'm A Cheerleader) is Nicky, an ex-junkie lesbian who's initially hooking up with a fellow inmate.
Most significantly, a trans character is played by an actress who is a trans woman. Laverne Cox plays Sophia Burset, an ex-firefighter who now runs the prison salon (and who is one of my favorite characters). Not everyone is represented, but it feels like a great start.
4. Female friendship, portrayed as it is.
Let's talk about the friendship between Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks). Two of the funniest characters, their impression of upper class WASPs was seriously hilarious, but they also got more melancholy when Taystee was leaving prison. It's refreshing to hear two friends on a TV show talk about themselves not in relation to guys, but other topics.
5. Portrayal of class divides.
Many times, the issue of class is glossed over in popular culture. While we begin the season with one of the inmates pointing out that everyone hangs out with people of their own race, the character of Pennsatucky Doggett (Taryn Manning), and her vendetta against Piper and Alex, make it clear that she's not going to be on their side just because they're all white. Instead, the viewers understand that Pennsatucky and Piper come from completely different socioeconomic classes, and that's one (of many) issues that they have with each other.
6. They can say the word abortion.
This isn't network TV. Rather than imply and dance around the term, Larry (Jason Biggs) even points it out to the viewers in one of his lines: "You can say it. Abortion."
7. They reference the Kinsey scale.
Piper refuses to be pigeonholed as a lesbian or a straight girl. She explains the Kinsey scale to Larry, saying that, "we all fall somewhere on a spectrum." It's amazing how often shows (and people in general) don't realize this. Props to Orange is the New Black for pointing that out.
8. A structure so, so suitable for binge watching
Yes, part of the show's addictiveness comes from the fact that Netflix automatically goes to the next episode after 15 seconds (genius). But the show is also so immersive on its own that it was impossible for me to stop watching. It's easy to get sucked into the world of the prison, given how much is packed into these 13 episodes. . Orange is the New Black is a great argument for the future of streaming television. The binge-watching model is clearly working, and Netflix is offering a platform that doesn't require a show to conform to the standards of network TV. Even cable shows don't offer such rich stories. Instead of following the model of a brooding male antihero (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Ray Donovan) that's been so prevalent on cable lately, streaming has opened the door to a kind of show that hasn't been seen in a long time: a female ensemble show. (With a female show runner to boot!)