This review covers the entire first season of Orange Is The New Black and is, thus, a spoiler-filled zone. For coverage of individual episodes, please see Myles McNutt’s weekly reviews, appearing at 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursdays.
There are things to be quibbled over in the first season of Orange Is The New Black. The score can be overbearing, and some of the pop music choices essentially define “on the nose.” Pennsatucky never really comes together as a character in the same way as some of the others on the show, too easily defined as a hick, fundamentalist Christian stereotype, and that’s a problem, considering how important she is to the season’s end game. There are moments that are far too over-obvious, like when the reporter asks Fig where all of the money that had been appropriated to the prison has gone, and the edit cuts back to a wider shot that reveals her nice car, one of those things you can smell coming from miles away.
But those are all quibbles, the sorts of things that might knock a point off here or there in an episodic review, but ultimately wouldn’t really matter. In the face of this full season of television, they simply don’t matter. Netflix’s previous projects confirmed its ambitions to be a player on the good TV scene; Orange Is The New Black cements them. It’s worthy of all the high praise it’s received from critics, and it will be worthy of any awards attention it receives in the year to come. It makes so few wrong steps that the few it does make are perhaps too easy to magnify (Pennsatucky would just be a part of the woodwork on so many other shows; here, there’s at least an attempt to dig into what makes her resentment tick). The ultimate impression the show leaves is that of a deeply humanistic, beautifully empathetic season of television that takes its time to make sure the world and characters are in place before simply settling in and telling more and more intricate and involving stories. By the season finale, there are something like dozens of plates spinning, and I, often not a fan of over-complication on television, was loving every minute of it, so confidently was it operating.
There are plenty of TV shows that have the characters keep secrets from each other for much of the season, only to have them come spilling out in the season’s final third, and it’s hard to make that sort of structure work in this day and age, because it’s hard to come up with good reasons for the characters to keep such things from each other. But at the end of episode 11—when Piper told Larry that, yes, she’d been having sex with Alex, and he told her that Alex was the one who had gotten her sent to prison—Orange Is The New Black reached the sort of pinnacle TV rarely hits, where the viewer has been so expertly manipulated and pushed, usually via the characters, that it’s hard to see just how much plot is being laid out, how quickly. But in those last three episodes, Orange Is The New Black found some other gear and laid everything on the table.
This extended to the plots I just didn’t care about. Daya and Bennett’s relationship was by far my least favorite continuing storyline in the season, but it took on a new urgency once she found out she was pregnant and even more urgency once her storyline intersected with Red’s as the cook attempted to find a way to help her out of her complicated situation—and if her solution just happened to punish Pornstache at the same time, well, that would be an added benefit. (Like most things on this show, it all fell apart because of Piper, though Pornstache still got punished. Everything falls apart because of Piper!) To tell you the truth, I didn’t understand all the ins and outs of Red’s plan, but I just loved seeing these characters—who were kept in very separate groups when the show began—growing together. A lesser show would have had Piper pull all of the prison together, but it’s more like her eyes are opened to the connections that run between all of the groups—and, thus, our eyes are opened, too.
It was the moments when we saw those underlying connections that most enthralled me. The moment early in episode 11 when everyone in the prison listens to Larry’s radio story is terrific, as is the fallout when the stories that Piper told him in confidence are suddenly broadcast to the world and, say, Crazy Eyes learns exactly what Piper thought of her. (The fallout is even worse with Claudette.) But I also loved the way news would filter through the prison, or how everybody became aware of Piper’s attempts to stop getting starved out by Red and the rest of the kitchen crew, or the sad ripples of grief that floated out from Tricia’s death.
It was during that last episode—the strongest of the season, I think—that I realized what it is that speaks to me so strongly in Orange: On some level, it’s an example of a genre that the networks aren’t doing very well anymore—the small-town show. Granted, there’s a lot more going on here than in a typical small-town show, but on some level, this is a series about 250 women confined to a very small place who get involved in each other’s lives because they don’t have much else to do. The relationships and subsets of the population and the character interplay is all beautifully drawn, just like it would be on a small-town show, and we get to know the world through a main character’s eyes, before we finally know everybody well enough to simply spend time with them on their own. It speaks to Orange’s confidence that it’s already tentatively doing this in episode three and is essentially divorced of Piper’s story arc being the most important story arc by episode five or six.
Yet it’s also a weirdly political show, and I didn’t think it would be from just the first six episodes. While I understood that there were going to be political elements from those episodes, I didn’t realize how much they would become a major part of the show going forward. Orange Is The New Black doesn’t stand up and shout about prison reform, because it’s more or less content to simply depict the way that giving a bunch of people absolute power over another bunch of people will play out 90 percent of the time. (The exception seems to be Lauren Lapkus as the agreeably sweet Susan Fischer, a guard who’s very amusing when she tries to be mean.) There are scenes in here—Pornstache feeling Piper up just because he can, Healy locking her up in SHU because he can, Pennsatucky’s treatment in the psych ward—that made me as angry as anything in a TV show I’ve seen recently, and it was because these characters have so little power and are so easily exploited. Orange isn’t calling for a wholesale abolition of the prison system or anything. What it’s doing is more subtle. It’s arguing that, on some base level, people will take the power they can get, even if via physical force, but any time a class of oppressors create a class of the oppressed, that oppressed class will find a kind of solidarity, unless they are driven apart by artificial splits.
That, ultimately, is why I had hoped for more from Pennsatucky. The season ends with Piper beating the shit out of her, and while it’s absolutely earned on Piper’s end—she’s been through hell and is nowhere near coming back—I’m not as certain it is on Pennsatucky’s end. She mostly behaves like a stereotypical hick fundamentalist Christian, as mentioned, and she carries all of the resentments she has against people like Piper from the outside into jail with her, and I’m not sure her flashback episode did a great job of explaining just why that is, beyond falling back on easy stereotypes about people like her or about Christian lawyers or the like. It’s, again, a very minor quibble, but when the season built to such a significant statement about not just these prisoners but the very dynamic of oppressors and the oppressed, it might have been nice to better understand why the person inadvertently doing Healy’s bidding was doing what she did, beyond just, “She thinks lesbians are sinful and/or wants to be an angel.” (Some of this may be due to Taryn Manning, too, who’s not quite at the level of most of the other women in the cast.)
The bulk of Orange Is The New Black, though, is so good that I’m not entirely sure what else to say about it, beyond pointing at my review of the first six episodes and saying, “This, even more so.” In particular, I was impressed at how thoroughly the run of the series made me want to see Alex and Piper get back together, while still planting all of the time bombs that would inevitably go off once they did. The episode where Alex got stuck in the dryer and was separated from Piper by that thin glass wall, in particular, proved just how much chemistry Taylor Schilling and Laura Prepon (both terrific) had when they were on screen together, and when Piper bursts out of solitary and into Alex’s arms, it feels remarkably earned for two characters who had spent the bulk of the season up until that point avoiding each other.
But I also liked how the show wasn’t afraid to make Larry loathsome, but believably loathsome. In fact, I loved how the show had the courage to make almost everyone in the cast believably selfish and petty and loathsome at one point or another. The characters you expect to hate all of the time—like the usually loathsome Pornstache—have moments when they do good things, and it’s not solely because of their own self-interest, nor is it something that really shifts your overall opinion on them. Piper is revealed more and more to be deluded about herself and her own persona the more the season goes on, and she only starts to realize just how far she’s fallen and just how much she needs to fix her life in those last two episodes (which, of course, end with her nearly beating a woman to death). Every single character does at least one good thing and at least one bad thing in the course of the season, and they all occupy a complex, sliding scale of morality.
What’s more, the series understands the weight of those actions. Unlike the gleeful antiheroes who increasingly make up the realm of “quality drama,” the characters on Orange hold grudges and understand their own power to hurt and build up their fellow inmates. The more the show goes on, the more we understand their points-of-view, and the more we understand how an offhand remark can end up feeling more cruel than its intention, or how terrifying a feud between the characters can be. And at all times, the characters are completely understandable when they’re doing awful things. I said above that Larry is “loathsome,” but he’s loathsome in a completely believable way, a way that any of us could see being if our significant other went off to prison and we saw an easy way to jumpstart our own careers (or had trouble understanding their need for human contact). And in the end, there may be no more troubled, complicated character than the protagonist, who keeps playing her fiancée and her ex-girlfriend off each other, until she has neither and ends up isolated in that snowy yard in the final scene by her own hand.
Howard Hawks’ famous definition of a good movie was three great scenes and no bad ones. I’m not going to say Orange Is The New Black has no bad scenes, since I’m sure I could think of one or two that didn’t match up to the show’s best if I really tried, but at the same time, that none stick out like sore thumbs suggests the worst the show ever was was merely average. And when I start thinking of great scenes or moments, well, there are so, so many. Yoga Jones finally explaining why she’s in jail. Sophia calling her wife on Thanksgiving. Piper breaking up with Alex or meeting Larry in the past. The way the show subtly indicates everything Piper is missing out on by being locked up. That damn chicken. And on and on. Orange Is The New Black is superbly confident, moving, harrowing television, and the only bad thing about getting it all at once is that now I have to wait until next summer for more.
- My favorite reveal: Crazy Eyes is apparently adopted and has white parents. In general, Crazy Eyes’ slow-building arc—where you get a sense of how much she hates her nickname over time—was one of my favorites in the season.
- For a series set in a prison, it had a surprisingly robust set of moral compasses, and my favorites ended up being the incarcerated nun and Nicky, who struggled with doing the right thing but usually found her way forward. Natasha Lyonne gave her a real sense of a life hard-lived and finally found in an unusual place.
- There was a point around the midseason—I think in Claudette’s flashback where the reason she’s in prison becomes obvious—where I wondered if everyone in the prison was someone who had committed a crime for a reason that would be justified by the storytelling. But the more the show went on, the more the characters were in prison for wholly selfish reasons but still reasons the show made sympathetic. In general, its sense of empathy is perfectly honed.
- I am never going to forgive the Emmys if Regina Spektor doesn’t win next year’s main title music award.
- The scene where Larry runs into, basically, Ira Glass at Thanksgiving might qualify for the “one bad scene” award if not for the hilarious incongruousness of it.
- Healy seemed like kind of a nice guy there at the start, but I came to really, really hate him, and his actions in the finale made him worthy of that hate. And yet in the scene toward the end where Red is talking with him and his mail-order bride, I had a kind of understanding of his frustrations all over again. Good character writing.
- I loved the Sullivan’s Travels-esque scenes of the characters watching something—a Dane Cook movie or a Christmas pageant—and reacting above and beyond what that might call for, simply because they were so happy to have something else to think about.
- What were your favorite flashback stories? I really enjoyed Tricia’s, Sophia’s, and Alex’s.
- I was going to try to single out favorite episodes beyond just the one where Tricia dies, but I really do think it’s the whole stretch from the Thanksgiving episode through the season’s end. You?
- And while we’re at it, what was up with the voice down in SHU? It seems pretty clearly a hallucination, but I kept waiting for some quick reversal, or a reveal that the story was something roughly based on this guy.