The so-called Golden Age of television is supposedly on its way out. An era that began with The Sopranos and The Wire and is well into its back nine with the upcoming conclusions to Breaking Bad and Mad Men gave us a new age of storytelling on the small screen. Laugh-track heavy, three-camera sitcoms and ubiquitous procedural dramas were no longer the best American television could offer. Those things still exist, but plot-rich, character-driven, high-stakes cable serials began to take over.
Tony Soprano. Jimmy McNulty. Walter White. Don Draper. They may have started as fictional characters, but they’re now icons, representing the very peak of a time when TV began to regularly churn out classic novels in high definition. They were the ideal antiheroes, deeply flawed protagonists who had a penchant for killing people, drinking too much, sleeping around, becoming the Southwest’s premium meth supplier or poorly disguising his Yorkshire accent to pretend he’s from Baltimore.
They were also all men.
GQ’s Brett Martin tackled these four and more in his recently released “Difficult Men,” an excellent accompaniment to the fantastic Alan Sepinwall’s “The Revolution Was Televised,” which tackled 12 series that were primarily responsible for that Golden Age of TV. Of Sepinwall’s subjects, eight are shows that focused heavily or entirely on male protagonists or ensembles, with Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Friday Night Lights the exceptions.
Each of those four casts was quite balanced, but we’ve seen precious little over the past decade and a half that featured essentially an entirely female cast. When we have seen lady-centric serialized TV, it’s in the vein of Sex and the City, appealing almost exclusively to the double-X chromosome set.
That’s not the case with Orange is the New Black.
Network TV certainly didn’t want to dip its foot in the pool first, and it’s even a tough sell for basic or premium cable to design a series around a cast full of females, but as a relative newcomer to original programming Netflix could take that chance. And does it ever pay off.
I’ve yet to jump into House of Cards, which, at least based on its nine Emmy nominations, is clearly doing something right, but I can’t imagine it being any better than Orange is the New Black. After 13 episodes of one season, it’s earned a spot on lists of transformative TV such as Sepinwall’s and firmly put an end to the belief that the Golden Age is popping 30 pills a day and creaking around with a cane.
OITNB popped up on Netflix with virtually no fanfare and even fewer expectations. House of Cards was the big fish, the one the streaming media provider bet heavily on as its original programming flagship, and Arrested Development’s relaunch was the fan favorite that kept Netflix at the forefront of the public consciousness through the summer despite the quality clearly failing to match the three original seasons that aired on FOX.
I’d watched the trailer of OITNB and found myself unaffected, though I later decided to check out the pilot in my thirst for something watchable between the season finale of Mad Men and the season premiere of Breaking Bad. My level of background knowledge of the series extended no further than hearing it was adapted from a novel by Jenji Kohan, the showrunner on Showtime’s Weeds, a show that, like OITNB, featured a female protagonist who became involved with trafficking drugs.
But while Nancy Botwin made a career of pushing marijuana on a fictional suburb of Los Angeles, Piper Chapman made a simple mistake nearly a decade ago that wound up earning her a 15-month sentence in the women’s federal prison in Litchfield, N.Y. So long to a pleasant engagement to fiancé Larry, played by perennial masturbator Jason Biggs, and adieu to a yuppie Brooklyn lifestyle trying to pitch artisanal soap to high-end retailers.
Chapman is played by Taylor Schilling, who’s a relative newcomer to anyone but the tweens who saw her star in the Nicholas Sparks’ adapted screen version of The Lucky One or the few folks who didn’t blink during her brief appearance as Ben Affleck’s estranged wife in Oscar-winning Argo.
She’ll be unknown no more after this role. It’s not hard to picture Schilling in the role of upper-middle class Piper, but as soon as she appears in her orange jumpsuit for the first time the game changes. Schilling handles the fish-out-of-water switch with aplomb, walking back and forth on the fine line of terror in being a prison newcomer while developing enough of a prickly exterior to help her survive.
Piper enters prison with nothing but a glowing self-image, thinking of herself as a rose among thorns, a girl on the rise who was the victim of unfortunate luck as the result of one bad decision. But being behind bars offers plenty of time for self-evaluation, and it’s the moments where Piper begins to come to terms with her own costly decisions when she truly gets a grasp on who she is. That’s where Schilling is at her best.
But even while noticing her own warts, Piper is no Walter White – in severity or screen dominance. The series is so outstanding because of the storylines and supporting characters, and that’s not a dig at the protagonist. There’s Laura Prepon of That 70’s Show fame as Alex Vause, Piper’s ex-lesbian fling and the heroin-smuggling reason both of them wound up in the slammer. There’s Star Trek veteran Kate Mulgrew as Red, the Russian kitchen cook who develops an immediately tenacious relationship with Piper. There’s little-known Michelle Hurst as Miss Claudette, one of Piper’s prison roommates, Natasha Lyonne, no stranger to real-life troubles, playing essentially Natasha Lyonne, and a cast of other inmates too long to list. Taryn Manning’s hillbilly Pennsatucky, Uzo Aduba’s Crazy Eyes, Samira Wiley’s Poussey and Danielle Brooks’ Taystee are the standouts, each with significant storylines throughout Season 1. Poussey and Taystee probably get the least screen time of any of the above characters, yet they still shared my favorite scene from across all 13 episodes – one that I think defines the show as well as any other. I also can’t forget Constance Shulman’s Yoga Jones, whose voice may sound familiar to any fans of Nickelodeon’s Doug, and The Wire alum Pablo Schreiber, who steals every scene he’s in as Super Troopers-esque prison guard Pornstache.
OITNB utilizes a Lost-type flashback arc, focusing most of the early episodes on one particular character’s path to prison while continually prodding Piper’s past with flashbacks revolving around her relationship with Larry or, more notably, her lesbian liaison with Alex. That’s a type of storytelling that’s not always prudent, but it worked well on Lost despite a penchant for overuse and is strong here in another environment where we have no preconceived notions of these characters and need to know how they earned their sentence. The best aspect of the flashbacks is that they don’t just offer excuses for our inmates but instead provide depth of character. Some were headed down a dangerous road and just needed that final push to prison. Others were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But all of them made decisions that make it perfectly clear these are more than just victims of circumstance.
Schilling likely isn’t going to win any awards for her performance, but it’s more layered than you expect and never showy in a role that could have been little more than screen candy for a more established actress. Biggs essentially plays Jim from American Pie, a role he’s never going to outgrow and one that he isn’t even really trying to considering he seems to have a clause that prohibits him from playing a character without polishing his skin flute on screen. He’s a normal guy who just wants to watch Mad Men and have a successful journalism career, an ongoing development that doesn’t necessarily make Larry a great character but provides a much-needed plot advancement in the prison.
My lone complaint is the casting of Prepon, who is playing a somewhat grown-up version of tomboy Donna Pinciotti. I wanted the character of Alex to be someone a bit older and at least a touch more dangerous than what Prepon provided, and I feel like that lack of edge made her relationship with Piper a bit less believable from Piper’s perspective. It’s no spoiler to say that the Alex-Piper relationship is perhaps the show’s most significant, and that means the audience needs to be able to buy the decisions Piper makes. I didn’t necessarily not buy them, but I didn’t feel like Prepon was a great match for Schilling here.
All that amounts to, though, is a minor quibble. The Wire had Herc, Breaking Bad has Skylar and Mad Men has Betty Draper – all questionable actor-character connections, none of which bring down the final product in any way.
OITNB is a comedy in the same way The Wire was, with light moments popping up that feel earned and not forced. But it’s 90 percent drama, a character study of consequences, self-realization and self-preservation. Piper may have only been a one-time drug money trafficker, but she has far more in common with those she shares company with behind bars than she does with her own fiancé.
It’s almost sacrilege to compare a show to The Wire, and I won’t go as far as making that leap here – particularly after only one season. Kohan’s other well-known dramedy, after all, chugged along for three or four enjoyable seasons before hanging on for four too many, but Weeds was a far inferior premise compared to OITNB’s.
What The Wire did so successfully was reinvent itself, steadily keeping the central themes of capitalism, decay, violence and the impossibility of change the same while providing a look at different layers of the same problems within one stagnant environment. I don’t think OITNB is that ambitious, but there’s the potential for it to provide four or five more seasons of examinations of the prison system and rehabilitation to put it just a level below. This isn’t Oz, as Piper is reminded early on, but it doesn’t need to be. Minimum security doesn’t have to equate to smaller stakes.
With 15 months behind minimum-security bars and a fiancé in wait, though, is a lengthy run even a possibility?
That’s the thing about prison sentences. They’re subject to change.
CHECKING THE SCORE: 5 stars out of 5