Review: Netflix's 'Orange Is the New Black' concludes a triumphant first season
I reviewed Netflix's "Orange is the New Black" last month based on the first six episodes. I've since watched the rest, and as I did before with "House of Cards" and "Arrested Development," I have thoughts on the whole season, with spoilers, coming up just as soon as I do to you what the spring does to cherry trees, but in a prison way...
Halfway through the season, I felt like "Orange" was the best of the Netflix originals so far. By the end, I was sure of it — and that this is one of the best shows of the year, on any channel or distribution system. Where I powered through "Cards" and "Arrested" partly out of professional obligation, partly to avoid (more) spoilers on social media, I kept watching "Orange" for the sheer pleasure of it. Netflix released the series the week before my annual Comic-Con/press tour summer travel odyssey, when I had lots of events to attend and a small mountain of other screeners to watch, yet I kept making time to watch the remaining episodes, because I knew I would enjoy them more than anything else on my plate, no matter the urgency.
"Orange" begins as the story of Piper and her assimilation into the prison world, and Taylor Schilling was terrific throughout. But what was so impressive as we got deeper into the first season was what a good job Jenji Kohan and company did at fleshing out the rest of the prison population — not only the other inmates, but the guards and counselors.
Piper's the one we understand at first, but by the end of the season I knew and cared an awful lot about Taystee, Poussey, Janae, Nicky and everyone else. It's remarkable, for instance, to consider what the show did with Crazy Eyes, and the role reversal between her and Piper over the course of the season. Early on, Crazy Eyes is an almost cartoonish villain, because that's all that Piper sees her as. But then we get little glimpses of her away from that conflict — the revelation of who her parents were during visiting day was one of the funniest, most delightful scenes of the season — until we begun to understand that she's just as human as everyone else in this place, and as damaged in her own way as her fellow inmates are in theirs. By the time we hear Larry on the faux-"This American Life" telling an exaggerated, outdated version of Piper's take on Crazy Eyes and the other women, our sympathies have nearly done a 180. We still feel bad for Piper, because she's no longer the woman who told Larry these stories, but mainly we feel for Crazy Eyes, Miss Claudette and the other women being described in ways we know fail to remotely capture whom they really are.
The depth the creative team was able to sketch out in only 13 episodes for an ensemble this big is really impressive. Some characters like Pornstache and Pennsatucky stayed on the broader end of the spectrum, yet they could turn on a dime from comic relief to genuine threat, and we even got to know some of what made them tick. Mr. Healy(*) turned from sympathetic ear to heel — leaving Piper to possibly die at Pennsatucky's hands in the season's final scene — yet on the journey there, we got to understand much of what's been motivating him, for good and for ill.
(*) And it was very funny watching these episodes at the same time I was moving through "Deadwood" season 3, where Michael Harney played a very different role as Steve the drunk.
I would single out Taryn Manning for such creepy, unglamorous work as Pennsatucky, but then I'd be ignoring Kate Mulgrew, Natasha Lyonne, Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, Dascha Polanco, Vicky Jeudy, Samira Wiley, Lea DeLaria, Laura Prepon, Michelle Hurst and everyone else. Many of them are performers I'd never seen before, or at least never noticed — not since "The Wire" has there been a show that's been this large and great a showcase for obscure actors of color.
The world of the prison grew so rich, in fact, that I'd be comfortable if we didn't have to leave the place as often in season 2. The flashbacks can stay — I'm very much looking forward to the inevitable Crazy Eyes spotlight — but I don't need nearly as much, if any, of Larry and the rest of Piper's friends and family. That was necessary in the opening chapters, since she was our initial tour guide to this place. At a certain point, though, we come to understand the world, and that everyone has a story just as rich and complicated as Piper's, and I'd rather learn more about theirs than enjoy more Jason Biggs masturbatory hijinks.
Mainly, though, I'm pleased that "Orange" has connected with as many people as it seems to have. Netflix's numbers remain a deeply-guarded secret (it felt like we spent half of press tour listening to network executives discussing the lack of information we have about how these shows are doing), but their executives were understandably happy enough with the creative results that they ordered the second season before the first one premiered. And in the month-plus since the episodes were released, it's been mentioned more often, and with more enthusiasm, than any recent show that does not involve Bryan Cranston cooking meth.
I expressed some qualms with the Netflix distribution model while discussing "Cards" and "Arrested," but I think ultimately it was the shortcomings of those particular seasons that were more at issue than the pace at which they could be watched. 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. 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 new one. The first thirteen hours of this prison sentence flew by quickly; the time until next season will be more difficult.
What did everybody else think? Did you have any favorite characters or story arcs? Whom do you want to see more or less of in season 2? And how did the chicken get through the fence?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org