Lately Netflix has been on an almost uninterrupted hit TV roll, talking horse cartoons aside; the new Arrested Development season and the hit remake House of Cards both proved to be highly successful for the video-streaming outlet. But record profits in 2013 came from an unlikely source: Orange is the New Black, which has quickly become my favorite new TV show. In fact, I’ve come to love the show so much that I’m waiting to read the memoir it was based on, Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, until after the show wraps. Sure, they always say the book is better than the movie (or in this case, the TV show), but it’s hard to believe. Kerman’s book hit the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, but the show has apparently brought in record profits for Netflix as well.
Orange is the New Black comes from showrunner Jenji Kohan, who was previously most famous for creating Weeds, a comedy about a suburban mom who resorts to dealing marijuana when her husband suddenly dies. There are some vague similarities between the two shows—in both, a middle-class, white woman ends up in a scenario that society doesn’t expect her to be in. However, Orange is the New Black, headed up by Taylor Schilling as author stand-in Piper Chapman, is by turns hilarious and sad, airy, and dark. A well-educated white woman from New England, Piper is convicted of a crime and goes to Litchfield Prison, where she is most definitely the proverbial fish out of water. However, despite the character’s star billing and connection to the author, the real star of the show is the prison and its other inhabitants.
One of the most empowering things about Orange is the New Black is its impressive cast, which is mostly all women, many of them persons of color, an ever-disappointing rarity in the television universe. Between fabulous performances by Laverne Cox, Kate Mulgrew, and Dascha Polanco, you begin to wonder why more networks aren’t embracing shows with well-developed, fully realized female characters. In its clever plotting backed by excellent writing, Orange is the New Black develops an incredibly complex and nuanced cast of characters.
Critics were only a little divided over the second season, which came out in June 2014. Some complained of shallowness, of an unwillingness to allow emotional moments to land without slathering them in absurd comedy. Most, however, saw it as a continued success and made comparisons to HBO’s Deadwood and The Wire, two other shows that managed to show how television could become a truly novelistic art form.
Indeed, it also shares those shows’ disdain for institutions as a whole; Litchfield is revealed as insidious and corrupt, a characterization that reflects Kerman’s work as an activist for prison reform. However, despite the often-weighty subject matter, I think most viewers will join me in simply being impatient for the next installment. In a July interview with MTV, Laverne Cox revealed that the show was currently filming its third season, one she described as a season in which, as in the previous one, characters would struggle to find a way to “keep their humanity in the face of really inhumane circumstances.” It’s due to be released in July 2015, and I, for one, will have a very hard time waiting for next summer.