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Sunday, June 28, 2015

How Orange Is The New Black Became The Best Show On Television

Last year I posted an article about the four contenders to replace Breaking Bad as the unequivocal best show on television. There were four main contenders: Parks and Recreation, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Orange Is The New Black. Since Vince Gilligan’s epic went off the air in the fall of 2013, three of those shows have made strong cases to be the champ. Mad Men ended up being the weakest out of the four, but it has helped define the standard for prestige television and is part of the reason any great non-super hero story isn't shown in movie theaters but rather on the small screen. Game of Thrones is the most watched show out of these four (most likely, since Netflix doesn’t release its viewing numbers) and has transcended the fantasy genre into something incredible, but it’s uneven-ness in storytelling and reliance on its source material ultimately forces the show to play second fiddle. Parks and Recreation is brilliant in every way, but the fact that it’s a sitcom first and foremost lowered its ceiling.

On the other hand, Orange Is The New Black managed to take the best parts of these shows and rise above them to become the best show out there. Orange has the storytelling skills of Mad Men, the grandeur of scope a la Game of Thrones, and the heart of Parks and Recreation while still telling its own stories. There are most certainly faults with the Netflix dramedy, and truthfully it probably has more faults than any of its competitors, but the fact that it’s still so damn good proves why it deserves to be the champion.

The first thing that has helped Orange Is The New Black become The Greatest is its fully formed and fleshed out characters. Mad Men, Parks and Rec, and even Game of Thrones (albeit to a lesser extent) have that as well, but none of those shows have a bench as deep as Orange- to have a minor character with limited to no screen time step up and become LeBron for an episode. Orange has the incredible ability to not only make an episode about a minor character entertaining, but to do so in a way that fills out the edges of their personality and characterization. Human beings are complex; we have different sides to ourselves. We stick within our lane, but where specifically in that lane we are depends on a variety of factors. Orange shows us these factors to give the audience a better idea of these characters and how and why they do and act the way they do.

Ultimately, this is the purpose of Orange Is The New Black. The show is designed to overcome our stereotypes of different classes, races, and genders of people. Normally we wouldn’t give two thoughts about a poor black women in prison thanks to her role in the drug game. We have our own misconceptions of what this person looks and acts and talks like. Yet, when we watch Orange, this misconception gets turned on its head and takes the form as a fan favorite character who loves literature and is a math savant.

Though what Orange Is The New Black really did to become The Greatest is that it took this deep bench of characters and molded them into whatever the story dictated. In Season 1, Piper Chapman is the unequivocal star of the show (especially considering her character is directly modeled after the author who wrote the book that inspired the show). However, Piper ended up being like (at least) the 12th best character on her own show. In Season 2, Orange Is The New Black became a true ensemble cast as the show was able to take its star and turn her into a supporting character. In Season 3, the show has managed to work with a paper-thin plot, and the main arc of the season (the prison going broke) isn't even introduced until halfway through the third season's second episode. Structurally, this has been a pretty big departure for Orange considering Season 2 played out like a traditional prison show would (there was the Big Bad, Vee, versus the underdog, Red). Season 2 was in turn a departure from its first season which played out as a show that did its best to shun away from traditional prison drama tropes. Orange is able to excellent when there's heavy plot and story to tell and it is just as easily able to be excellent where almost nothing happens. A lot of these changes and fluctuations have to do with having an experienced show runner in Jenji Kohan (Weeds) learning from her mistakes, but Kohan is ultimately able to tell these different stories thanks to the plethora of characters at her disposal. 

Orange Is The New Black is also able to bring out a plethora of emotions within its audience. The show makes you care about so many different and conflicting perspectives and caused them to interact to force the audience to have so many FEEEEEELS! Orange can be just as funny as Parks and Rec and just as thought provoking as Mad Men and can make you just as angry as Game of Thrones, but it does so on a consistent basis. The show makes you laugh, makes you cry, and makes you want to watch the next episode to find out what happens next. You wouldn’t think a character driven show would be ideal for binge watching, but Orange is the perfect blend of characters, story, and plot that you need to breeze through all 13 episodes in a weekend. 

Orange Is The New Black may be a different show to Breaking Bad in many ways, but it is the perfect show to replace Breaking Bad on the mantle precisely because of this. Breaking Bad was action packed with a male anti-hero at its center that seemed indicative of The Golden Age of Television –esque programs that preceded it. Orange Is The New Black is an ensemble character-driven female-driven piece with its lead characters resembling true heroes (while we are dealing with convicted felons, we’re following these women after they’ve committed the crime and are being incarcerated for it following along the more traditional hero archetypes). Breaking Bad was a show that believed that humans have the power to change, regardless of their environment- and took a very cynical view on that take. Orange Is The New Black is a show that believes we’re almost exclusively a product of our environment- yet has a very optimistic view on that take. The women in Litchfield prison have all actually committed felonies, but still believes there’s good in the world. There’s a clear sense of right and wrong, and if you do wrong then you will be punished for it. However, we can always do what we can to make the best out of a bad situation.

And Orange Is The New Black just feels right to be the Queen of television, doesn’t it? America’s social attitudes are continually shifting (thanks in large part to television itself) and our television shows are a reflection of our culture. Just look at the cultural milestone Entourage the TV show was 10 years ago versus how well Entourage the movie is viewed today. Breaking Bad, its style of television, and what it represents is informative of what we were but Orange Is The New Black is informative of what we are now. America wants to see under-represented classes, genders, and races in their TV shows (especially when their stories are told as well as OITNB stories are). It’s why Pitch Perfect 2 destroyed Mad Max: Fury Road at the domestic Box Office, it’s why a live action Cinderella can rake in millions, and it’s why a show featuring a large cast that’s almost exclusively women (including one transgendered woman who graced the cover of Time magazine) have become so watchable.

Additionally, Orange Is The New Black represents how our culture consumes television.  We don’t care about time slots and channels anymore, we care about the quality of the program itself and want to watch it at a time more convenient for us. This trend was helped in part and started by Breaking Bad. The AMC crime drama was always a great show, but it wasn’t watched by the masses until they started binge-watching it on Netflix. Now Netflix has cut out the middle man and started creating content directly for the masses. And the show the masses have chosen to be #1 is Orange Is The New Black.


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