Jenji Kohan probably didn’t expect Orange Is the New Black to be renewed before its first episode aired. But how could she? The Weeds creator, 44, didn’t have that kind of job security at Showtime, where her suburban dramedy ran for eight successful seasons.
But Netflix broke the mold on June 27th when it announced that Black, based on the best-selling book of the same name by Piper Kerman, had been greenlit for a second season. The show, however, wouldn’t be available until July 11th. Odd? Maybe. That is, until you finish the first season and realize just how utterly brilliant it is.
Taylor Schilling, in what’s sure to be her break-out role, plays Piper Chapman, a smart, seemingly innocent New Yorker whose past relationship with a drug-runner Alex (Laura Prepon) lands her behind bars. She leaves behind her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs), pregnant best friend (Maria Dizzia) and blog in exchange for an orange jumpsuit, improvised shanks and plenty of drama.
Of the four major original series Netflix has released this year, Black arrived with the least promotion, buzz and fanfare.
House of Cards debuted on February 1 and had the benefit of an extremely high-profile cast and crew (including Kevin Spacey and David Fincher), the novelty of being the first major series on streaming television and the power of Netflix’s seemingly endless promotional machine. Hemlock Grove debuted in April with Eli Roth attached and the built-in genre audience that flocks to just about anything horror-related.
And not only was the return of Arrested Development promoted just about everywhere you turned in May, it also had a vast legion of fanboys and fangirls waiting for years to soak up more Bluth family shenanigans.
Black, on the other hand, had a high-ish profile creator (Kohan), a well-received book and a few actors that once were involved in very popular projects (Biggs, Laura Prepon, Natasha Lyonne) but whose careers had waned in recent years. It didn’t, for whatever reason, have nearly as much of the Netflix hype machine behind it.
A quick Google search reveals just how out of balance the initial reception was compared to House of Cards. The week after Kevin Spacey’s series debuted, readers were hard-pressed not to find an entertainment site not covering the show. The week after Orange debuted, though, only a few pieces popped up, among them Andy Greenwald’s excellent breakdown of the program for Grantland.com. So what was it about Black that kept it from getting the kind of attention House of Cards or Arrested Development (or even Hemlock Grove) garnered?
Was it the fact that the series is extremely female-dominated? Aside from four or five male characters, nearly every player on Black is female. And of those few male characters, all of them, save one, are douchebags. For television fans, it’s a welcome change, one that only a ballsy outfit like Netflix would have the marbles to broadcast.
Flash forward a few weeks, though, and we’re starting to see the snowball growing for Orange Is the New Black. More and more buzz has started to form, critical reception has been astoundingly positive and more viewers are standing around their virtual water coolers talking about Piper Chapman, Alex Vause and “Red” Reznikov than there are wondering when Cards‘ Francis Underwood will be returning.
And for good reason: Despite the lack of pre-release hype, early buzz and big-name stars, Black is the very best original series Netflix has released so far.
That’s right, folks. The completely serviceable House of Cards may have garnered nine Primetime Emmy nominations this year, but Orange Is the New Black is the better written, more heartfelt and more complete show. It shines where Cards fails and, if the TV gods are on our side, it will end up with just as many nominations as its big brother in 2014.
In fact, if Kohan, Schilling and Kate Mulgrew (playing Galina “Red” Reznikov) aren’t already Emmy locks for next year, there’s something wrong with the system. Add in buzz for Natasha Lyonne, Uzo Aduba and Taryn Manning, and you’ve got a certified hit on your hands.
With shows like Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards and the upcoming Ricky Gervais comedy, Derek, Netflix has laid down the gauntlet. If you’re a streaming service planning to jump into the land of original television, you suddenly have some extremely high expectations (and competition). And, like the ladies of Litchfield Penitentiary, basic cable, major networks and premium channels should all be sleeping with one eye open at this point.
Can you blame them?