Orange Is the New Black was technically the second of Netflix’s original series to debut, arriving five months after House of Cards in 2013. But where Cards was exactly the kind of antihero drama that had been made for years on cable TV (Netflix in fact won a bidding war with HBO for it), Orange felt like something new in almost every way. As the women’s prison drama enters its seventh and final season this week, it feels right to celebrate it as the first series explicitly designed for the streaming era, and still one of the best at taking advantage of the freedoms offered by this brave new programming world.
On Showtime’s Weeds, Orange creator Jenji Kohan had already demonstrated a propensity for throwing out the relatively new rules of post-Sopranos TV. She literally burned down the show’s original suburban setting after three seasons, and metaphorically blew up the show in each remaining year. But that was only a warm-up act compared to what Kohan would do in adapting Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir about being a privileged white woman doing time in a federal prison for a long-forgotten drug offense.
Orange begins by focusing on its fictionalized Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she kicks off her sentence. And at the beginning, we see Litchfield penitentiary and its inmates through Piper’s eyes. She’s startled when her first prison shower is interrupted by Taystee (Danielle Brooks), a large black woman who objects to Piper’s use of so much hot water and stops to comment on and even cop a feel of Piper’s “TV titties.” She’s starved by Red (Kate Mulgrew), the prideful Russian in charge of the kitchen, for the sin of complaining about the cuisine, and she’s terrorized by “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba), another black inmate with an unbridled crush on our ostensible heroine.
But Piper was really a Trojan horse for the kinds of stories Orange was more interested in — or maybe just better at — telling. Gradually, we got to know all the other inmates, through a mix of pre-prison flashbacks and stories about their lives behind bars, and discovered that they’re at least as complex and sympathetic as Piper, and usually more so. Crazy Eyes, for instance, is revealed to be a mentally ill but fundamentally sweet woman who prefers to be called by her given name, Suzanne, while Taystee’s struggles with injustice in and out of Litchfield would provide just as much a dramatic spine for the series as Piper’s on-again, off-again romance with Alex (Laura Prepon), the ex who ratted her out to the feds. By the time the first season climaxes with Piper’s doofus husband Larry (Jason Biggs) doing a public radio story based on Piper’s initial impressions of her new neighbors, they and we understand just how shallow and incorrect most of her assumptions were.
In that way, Piper wasn’t just the stand-in for the prototypical Netflix subscriber, but for the many TV gatekeepers who had long overlooked the stories of all the other kinds of women serving alongside her. Piper was soon forgiven by Red, and in turn forgave Alex, and their crew featured some fascinating characters like hyperverbal junkie Nicky (Natasha Lyonne, in the performance that helped give us Russian Doll) and the delusional Morello (Yael Stone). But the series spent a lot of its time exploring and empathizing with women of color and/or varying gender identities, people to whom neither Piper nor television itself had given much thought in the past. The inmates largely divided themselves up along racial lines, but there were divides even within those subgroups. The African American inmates often held trans hairdresser Sophia (Laverne Cox, a trailblazer for trans performers playing trans roles) at arm’s length, and even Taystee’s friendship with Poussey (Samira Wiley) could get messy at times due to Poussey’s unrequited crush on her. In the Latinx group, shy artist Daya (Dascha Polanco) was torn between the criminal encouragement of her mother Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and the more sensible maternal wisdom of Gloria (Selenis Levya), even as the strange and seemingly feral Blanca (Laura Gómez) turned out to be the smartest and most mature member of the crew. Even an unrepentantly terrible figure like racist hillbilly Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) would in time turn out to have more layers than even she might have guessed at first, as she floated from group to group in search of a place to fit in.
That Piper was often the most annoying character in the series turned out to be a feature, not a bug, once it became clear that the show mostly understood that, too. She would still get a disproportionate amount of screen time relative to her dramatic merits in some seasons — this final one dwells a lot on her attempts to rejoin her old life after getting early parole — but even in those scenes, the joke tended to be on her, rather than on the people she was obliviously offending.
That ability to tell so many different kinds of stories — intensely dramatic, broadly comedic, at times wildly fantastical — of so many different kinds of women(*) feels like the kind of thing that required the broader canvas allowed by a streamer. (Similarly, though this show also had its missteps, Amazon’s Transparent likely couldn’t have been made even for HBO back in 2014.) With its Lost-style flashback structure, Orange was more clearly episodic than most of Netflix’s “We think of this as a 10-hour movie” narrative sludges. But the narrative became so sprawling over time that you could watch part of a season in almost any time increment — 30 minutes in one sitting, 90 the next — and get something satisfying and often surprising out of the experience.
(*) The show could also do exceptionally well by men when it wanted to. There’s a great story in the final season about one of the more likable male characters being confronted by his own past misdeeds. It’s a #MeToo situation that manages to empathize with the accused without ever forgiving what he did — the sort of moral shading Orange could pull off beautifully.
The show’s ambition in time proved curse as much as blessing. Other than the fairly dark second season — centered around the arrival of Taystee’s cruel and manipulative mentor Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) — the show’s rapidly shifting tones could induce whiplash. Devoting the entire fifth season to the 36 hours of a prison riot only exacerbated that problem, and last year’s sixth season seemed caught between Weeds-esque reinvention and an ungainly reversion to the old status quo. The huge number of characters meant you never had to spend too much time with someone you disliked (not even Piper), but if your primary interest was, say, Daya’s gradual descent into violence and drug dealing, you had to sit through long stretches that were not about that.
But if the series seemed to be running on fumes, Season Seven allows it to go out reminding us why it was so great, and so different, to begin with. Last season concluded not only with Piper being released, but Blanca being transferred into Litchfield’s new wing for holding undocumented immigrants. In depicting the monstrous partnership between ICE and privatized prisons, Orange proves it still has important things to say about this world, and the larger one around it. (That subplot even briefly justifies the ongoing use of the flashbacks, with an episode featuring a collection of heartbreaking stories about how three different women ended up in this converted cafeteria.) These new episodes are more Piper-centric than they need to be. But they bring remarkable closure to this huge cast of characters, with a ratio of tragic endings to relatively happy ones that feels true to the spirit of things without making the audience question why they’ve been watching this show for so long. (It’s one of several bits of spiritual overlap with The Wire, along with a shared interest in dysfunctional institutions that exist to perpetuate themselves, and a desire to tell stories about people TV tends to ignore.) In particular, the conclusion to Taystee’s saga is a reminder of what a powerhouse actor Brooks has turned out to be, and how even a show that loves its characters as much as this one doesn’t flinch from the realities of their situations.
It feels like no one would have tried to make Orange Is the New Black before Netflix got in the game. Seven uneven but often brilliant years later, it still casts a long shadow over all the shows that have followed it.
The final season of Orange Is the New Black debuts Friday on Netflix. I’ve seen all 13 episodes.