Orange Is The New Black bet on its characters and won

Orange Is The New Black bet on its characters and won

For 2013’s best-of-TV list, The A.V. Club’s TV writers got together to discuss the shows that got us talking the most over the past 12 months. We’re unveiling those shows, one per publication day, culminating in our picks for the top three of the year. Don’t forget to vote for your favorites of the year in our readers’ poll. 

Our best new show of 2013 is Orange Is The New Black, a Netflix original released all at once over the summer. The show followed an affluent young woman, Piper Chapman, into the Litchfield penitentiary, revealing a dark, funny world of hapless prisoners. Orange Is The New Black ventured into storytelling territory that few other shows would dare, and much of its strength came from the way it built its large cast of unconventional female characters. Below is a roundup of the finest moments from the many characters that made Orange Is The New Black the best new show of the year.

Piper kisses Alex
Orange Is The New Black set itself apart as the best new show of 2013 not through tight plotting or even particularly original character arcs. It set itself apart by its devotion, above all else, to exploring the essential humanity of its characters—by letting them be complex, flawed, often tragic figures. Though that meant the show won substantial acclaim by being one of the few to tell stories about women of racial and class backgrounds not often shown on TV, it extended to the series’ lead, who at first seems like the safe, white protagonist who will be the gateway into the world of Litchfield for many a Netflix subscriber. But as time goes on, Piper Chapman, played brilliantly by Taylor Schilling, is given her own quirks and peccadillos, and the show never treats her complicated bisexual history as a goofy part of her life. It’s a real, breathing thing, as was communicated in the intensely sensual moment when Piper stalked through the whole of the prison, seemingly, to find Alex, the woman who’d gotten her involved in drug trafficking in the first place, and plant a kiss on her lips. People are not their stereotypes. And on Orange, that extends even to the safe, white-girl protagonist. [TV]

Larry on NPR
Even as we see Piper falling further into the “fishbowl” of prison life, her stay-at-home fiancé Larry is the frowning measure of just how far she’s gone. His frustration mirrors Piper’s until suddenly, painfully, it doesn’t. The fracture becomes a break; by the season finale, the break is a chasm, too thick with confused grief for either of them to cross. Jason Biggs breaks some new ground with this role, which lets him be a subtle, believable villain. Ultimately, it’s Larry’s NPR appearance that makes him crucial. Larry may mean well, but his reluctance to tell Piper about NPR and his “Modern Love” column—enormous milestones for any aspiring writer—reveals that he knows he’s appropriating Litchfield’s struggles for his own gain. Listening to him tell these stories is infuriating, because they’re not his stories at all. As Orange Is The New Black shines a light on women who are usually invisible, it also shows how the Larrys of the world inevitably get the spotlight. [CF]

Miss Claudette pulls the (proverbial) knife from her back
When Piper is sent to room with the steely Miss Claudette, her friends are all too willing to share their theories about why Claudette’s in prison (up to and including murder) and the rumors of her inhumanity (she never poops!). Piper tells those stories to Larry before she makes friends with Claudette, played by Michelle Hurst. We find out that, yes, she’s a murderer, but one with a surprising warmth—there are good reasons for her cold demeanor. And then Larry tells the story of what Piper first thought about her on the radio, and Claudette confronts Piper, and the audience, with a searing “Is that what you think of me?” It forces us to confront her tragedy. The question alone is enough to make us reconsider Claudette. [RK]

Lorna planning her dream wedding
Lorna is the first inmate Piper meets: She’s the one driving the bus to Litchfield. What’s immediately striking about her is her cheeriness—she’s practically upbeat, even in the gray-and-beige walls of the correctional facility. Throughout the show, Yael Stone’s Lorna plays a supporting role that’s a bit like Frenchy in Grease—worldly, a little ditzy, and contradictory, but always with a smile on her face. Her fervent scrapbooking is tragically hopeless, a clear way of coping with her failing relationship and her seemingly interminable prison sentence. But it has all the trappings of a perfectly normal life for a bride-to-be, and Stone sells it with charm and optimism. We’re still hoping Lorna gets her dream wedding, even if her chances are looking rather slim. [SS]

Daya seduces Pornstache
Of the central characters of the series, Daya starts out as the biggest cliché by literally following her mother into prison. She falls into a fairly chaste and affectionate relationship with Bennett, one of the prison guards. But when she becomes pregnant, she works to protect herself by seducing Pornstache, as part of a bigger scheme cooked up by Red. While rarely the show’s most compelling character, Daya offers a contrasting melodrama to Piper’s: While Piper fights the system, Daya accepts that the system won’t protect her. Dascha Polanco plays Daya as a character that can accept. She settles into the chaos and community of Litchfield, expecting this to be her life for the foreseeable future. [MM]

Pornstache goes to the bar
At season’s start, George “Pornstache” Mendez seems to be the show’s most loathsome individual, a prison guard who seems to find no end to the satisfaction he gets from his minimal authority. As the season proceeds, however, the same humane treatment that all of the inmates get begins to extend to the prison staff, and Pornstache is revealed to be, if not a good person, at least someone who is achingly lonely and in search of something like love, if not really that. (He’d never be able to respect another human being enough to really love them.) Pablo Schreiber gradually builds on the gaping wound at the character’s center, until he’s at a bar with another guard, talking about the inmate he’s fallen for, an inmate who’s actually in love with his fellow guard, though Pornstache doesn’t know that yet. Pornstache acts so invincible because he’s so broken, and that makes his inevitable downfall both satisfying and weirdly pitiful. [TV]

Tricia detoxing in her bunk
Tricia never had the easiest of times, either inside or outside of Litchfield Penitentiary, but she always approached circumstances with optimism that belied her situation. That makes this moment in “Moscow Mule,” in which she realizes her “family” of kitchen workers has abandoned her, all the more heartbreaking. As someone who always strove to pay her debts, Tricia is stunned to learn that her drug use has banished her from the one place in which she feels at home in prison. Red’s decision to banish her to solitary, using Nicky as intermediary, has effects that resonate throughout the rest of the season. While never a central character, Madeline Brewer’s Tricia was one of many whose importance goes well beyond mere screen time, and into how she helped shape the complex fabric of this show’s world. [RM]

Nicky drops the act
Orange Is The New Black uses two characters as audience surrogates. As Piper Chapman reacted with confusion and anger to the bizarre prison structure, Natasha Lyonne’s character Nicky serves as a guide for her, and us, skewering the absurdity of prison life with biting, detached irony. As Chapman becomes more comfortable with prison life, Nicky becomes less of a guide, and more of a confidant. The final bit of wisdom Chapman needs from Nicky in order to survive is how to deal with the despair of the realization that she’s in prison, a reason to get up every morning. In that moment, Nicky drops the jokes and the tough façade, and tells Piper that she hasn’t found one. It’s a deeply humanizing moment for a woman whose second-most memorable scene is attempting to recreate a porno as soon as she puts on a tool belt. [RK]

Pennsatucky in the courtroom
Orange Is The New Black had some trouble with Taryn Manning’s Pennsatucky when they made her a villain—she was almost too convenient a bad guy, wrapped up as she was in her own mental disturbance and meth-head, Appalachian ignorance. But the show did well to give her a backstory—and even though she never comes off as particularly sympathetic, the window into inmate Doggett’s former life is a little heartbreaking: She’s a pathetic, uneducated woman, eager to embrace fundamentalism because it’s the only thing that gives her meaning. It makes her dangerous and mean, but also a victim. Even if she’s a monster, she’s still plainly hurt when the clinic worker sneers at her abortions. And by the time she gets to the courtroom, she’s finally found something that makes her a hero. Her enthusiastic embrace of it is as sad as it infuriating. [SS]

Red, snubbed by a clique
Red is introduced to us as the all-powerful head of the kitchen, but in the show’s first flashback, we travel back with Red to a time and place where she’s just Galina Reznikov, wife of a restaurateur. More than Russia or Brooklyn, Red comes from a place of powerlessness. Her initial impotence is immediately apparent in her flashback: the moment her face drops when she figures out that the silicone-injected, jogging mob wives don’t want her to be in their crew. She ends that scene shamed, but she slowly claws her way from the bottom of the food chain to the top—even if the downside of that power is incarceration. Red is who she is in Litchfield because of who she wasn’t outside of its walls. While she may not have her kitchen back by the end of the first season, leaving her station-less, you better damn well believe Red won’t be there for long. [ME]

“Crazy Eyes” becomes Suzanne
At the beginning of the series, neither Piper nor the audience bothered to find out more about the woman who attached herself to Piper’s hip and claimed to be her prison wife. By the time she was peeing on the floor outside of Piper’s bunk in an act of revenge, it would be easy to dismiss this woman with the frenzied eyes as, well, crazy. And yet if there was one lesson that resonated from the series’ first season, it was the inability for Suzanne’s more well-known nickname to properly represent her as a human being. Suzanne’s story, unfolding slowly through brief glimpses of honesty peeking out from beneath the veil of Piper’s—and the audience’s—first impression, is one of the series’ most compelling. It makes us feel complicit in the systemic othering of women based on racial stereotypes and mental health, and gives us a window to understand Suzanne as a person, rather than Crazy Eyes as a caricature. Uzo Aduba was bumped to series regular in season two, suggesting we’ll see even more of her. [MM]

Taystee’s dance-goodbye
Unlike many of the other central characters, Taystee isn’t given the benefit of a flashback episode illuminating where she came from. Her backstory dribbled out as the series progressed (“So I’m sitting there, barbecue sauce on my titties...”). But in a place where running is outlawed, Taystee doesn’t just trudge through the hallways. She bounces, she glides, she bursts with spirit. Danielle Brooks gives her character energy and verve that make Taystee stand out from the very first episode. When she’s let out on parole, her best friend, Poussey, rushes to say goodbye. Right before she gets into her ride to freedom, she turns around, waves, and gives Poussey one last bit of Taystee as a confused guard looks on. She might not have made it long outside of Litchfield, but no matter how long she’s in there, Taystee will still be dancing. [ME]

Poussey reuniting with her best friend
Samira Wiley’s Poussey doesn’t get the flashback treatment in season one, so her character isn’t explored much beyond her consistently keen eye for racial coding. Instead, Poussey registers through her rock-solid friendship with fellow inmate Taystee. Their friendship one of the most interesting relationships on the show; it’s the standard Orange Is The New Black uses to show how crucial the mini-society these women have formed together is to their survival. When Taystee is released on parole but returns after her failed stint on the outside, her eventual reunion with Poussey is a jumble of mixed emotions: Poussey’s anger at Taystee’s backslide, Taystee’s shame at disappointing her friend, and ultimately their delight at having each other to lean on again. Poussey’s backstory may be illuminated at some point in the future, but through this friendship, the true content of her character has already been revealed. [CR]

Sophia lets her wife go
Sophia is a trans character played by a trans woman, Laverne Cox, and her story illuminates issues prevalent in the disproportionately large incarcerated trans community. But ultimately, Sophia is such a powerful character because she illustrates the effects of incarceration on the family unit. While Piper and Larry have their own issues, they aren’t married, and they don’t have a child to contend with. Their life hasn’t really started—but Sophia and her wife are in the middle of theirs. When Sophia learns that her wife has been dating their pastor, she gets upset. But eventually, she gives the pairing her blessing. Time stopped for Sophia during her time at Litchfield, but for her wife, life has kept on going. The loyalty and love her wife has continuously shown Sophia has limits. Even though it’s a brave and fair decision, it’s heartbreaking to watch—not only because Sophia is lovable, but because it shows that her incarceration didn’t just damage Sophia’s life, but the lives of everyone around her as well. [ME]

Sister Ingalls befriends Sophia
A character built on a basic contradiction (A nun and a criminal?!), Sister Ingalls is one of many minor supporting characters who would strike a single note on other shows. Although she lacks a substantial backstory (we learn only off-handedly that she was arrested as part of a political protest), Sister Ingalls became an unlikely confidant for Sophia, slowly gaining her second and third dimensions not through flashbacks but through a compelling relationship forged over hormone replacements. Beth Fowler may never have been given a big moment on the scale of some of her co-stars, but Sister Ingalls managed to inflect the series’ turn toward religion in its closing episodes in a nuanced, human way. [MM]

Susan tries to get tough
A former grocery-store bagger who once interacted with Piper, Lauren Lapkus’ Susan is a nervous and jumpy rookie prison guard—not a great combination for handling hostile inmates who can get away with more when she’s around. In “Fool Me Once,” after Caputo reminds her to be tougher with inmates so they don’t take advantage of her, Susan interrupts Yoga Jones’ powerful confessional monologue to Janae—on its own, one of the finest moments of the series. It’s an attempt to be tougher. But once she realizes the emotional breakthrough she’s infringing upon, she immediately goes back to cowering and apologizes. The show sympathizes with her, even as it implies that she’s not cut out for this job—because she sees the inmates as the human beings they are. [KM]

Yoga Jones gives viewers the lay of the land
Yeah, Yoga Jones’ best moment is probably when she tells the story of how she wound up in prison, but we’ve already talked about that, and it’s best experienced, rather than spoiled (even for a series that’s so much about its own vibe that it’s spoiler resistant). Instead, look at how the show uses her (and Constance Shulman’s performance) to produce a scene you’ve seen millions of times before and make it feel fresh. How many shows like this have opened with a character filling in the protagonist on the lay of the land, the cliques and groups to bond with and the others to avoid? But as Yoga Jones and others tell Piper all about who’s who in the prison, Shulman settles into an easy den-mother vibe that she carries throughout the season until that shattering confession. [TV]

Big Boo prays for her soul
As part of Piper’s plot to knock Pennsatucky off her high horse, Big Boo drops to her knees in the kitchen during the late-season episode “Bora Bora Bora” to help her cleanse “unclean thoughts” in the name of eventually forming a family of her own outside of its walls. Pennsatucky is initially skeptical, but Big Boo eventually convinces her to perform an exorcism in front of everyone. It’s the perfect moment to encapsulate the various modes and moods of this program. By displaying a comic side to Lea DeLaria’s big, tattooed, brusque character, Orange once again demonstrated an ability to reveal surprising facets to each character. But this comic moment also has unforeseen consequences that resonate for both Pennsatucky and Piper going forth. “The cycle of terror ends now with me,” declares Big Boo during this scene. If only that were true. [RM]

Alex asks Piper to stay
Alex goes through one of the biggest transformations during season one, but it’s a transformation of audience perception rather than actual change. She is introduced as the antagonist; the sexy drug dealer who is the supposed bad guy to Piper’s innocent victim, manipulating Piper into running drugs and then turning her in when times get tough. As more information is revealed, however, everything shifts on its axis until it’s obvious her story with Piper is anything but black and white. In this devastating flashback, Alex learns of her mother’s death right as Piper was planning on leaving her. When Piper chooses to leave instead of helping Alex bury her mom, it becomes shockingly clear through Laura Prepon’s performance that there are two sides to every story, and the true bad guy in this relationship might not be Alex after all. [CR]

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