Cultural Commentator

Dark Comedies With a Strong Female Lead: Recommending ‘Orange Is the New Black’

Cultural Commentator

Dark Comedies With a Strong Female Lead: Recommending ‘Orange Is the New Black’

+

Between the watching and the reading about, I gave a whole day of my life to Jenji Kohan this past weekend. Girl already got at least a long weekend’s worth of my waking hours, watching and rewatching her Showtime series Weeds, plus countless nights spent dreaming I was its protagonist, Nancy Botwin, that pomo femme fatale shiksa MILF goddess weed dealer of the milkiest skin and touch-of-milk iced coffees. Despite its floundering-in-Mexico seasons, I count Weeds among my favorite shows (The Wire, Twin Peaks, Gossip Girl) and so I was more than happy to succumb some of my briefly allotted time on earth to Jenji’s latest vision, Orange is the New Black.

In case you’ve been living under adblock, Orange is the New Black is a Netflix original series, the first season of which was released in full, as they are, on Thursday, July 11; ready for the binging. Season one includes 13 episodes at around 50 minutes each. Season two is forthcoming; it was renewed before the series aired. Orange Is the New Black is based on the best-selling memoir of the same title by Piper Kerman, an American woman who spent a year in a low-security prison for drug trafficking crimes she committed with a ex-girlfriend years prior to her conviction. In the first episode of the show, waspy Piper (Taylor Schilling) is about to leave her bougie Brooklyn life (she makes artisanal soaps that will be “carried at Barney’s”) and her committed fiance, Larry (Jason Biggs), a hapless aspiring writer and classic New York Jew, to serve out her guilty sentence. Piper begins her time imagining that she’ll Eat, Pray, Love her way through the thing, but we all know, yeah right. The draw of the show is what will she learn instead?? Oh and also: Piper’s still-super-sexy drug dealer ex-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon, That ‘70s show), who may or may not have ratted Piper out, is serving in the same prison. Every time I clicked “next episode” I did so hoping it would be the one they hooked up in.

Orange is not just about two white girls in prison though. Jenji does with Orange what she did with Weeds: lead with what we are used to looking at in the media (an attractive white woman) and use this “everywoman” to introduce us to people and places we aren’t used to seeing on the screen. Every episode zeros in on a different inmate. There’s a former firefighter M2F with debt issues, a Russian cook named Red with anger management issues, a meth face Jesus freak, a gorgeous mother-daughter rivalry, and so on. Like Weeds, Orange covers race, class, gender, sex, family, power, politics, crime, and the media in America with satirical bite, candor, and more humanity than all of NBC’s programming put together.

Clicking between episodes this weekend, I was aware of myself as a stat: a Canadian Netflix subscriber streaming from Brooklyn, NY whose highest-rated films include Mulholland Dr., The Big Lebowski, Harold and Maude, Rosemary’s Baby, Ghost World, and Bachelorette; high-rated TV programs: Mad Men, Weeds, Freaks and Geeks, Twin Peaks, My So-Called Life, Top of the Lake. Can Netflix know my sexual orientation from what I watch? Gather who I voted for in the last election? Suspect that I’d binge on a show before I’d even seen a clip? And so renew it? The stats aren’t out yet but they will be. We’ll know how many people watched Orange in its entirety, how many people tried out the first few episodes. They can know how fast we watch. What we watched before (season one and eight of Weeds) and after (Pusher 3). Something of who we are.

Netflix original programming is just that: original. It gets to be because their stats show there’s an audience for esoteria. Netflix can have my data if it means they fund shows that I’ll love. But how many shows should there be? From my echo chamber, it seemed like everyone was either watching or thinking about watching Orange all weekend. I texted one friend the recommendation and he replied that he couldn’t deal, “there are too many shows.” So, the hegemony of cable is over, now there are shows for every persuasion. Melodramatic period pieces with a dysfunctional male protagonist? NSFW fantasy realms with incestuous politics? Lesbian dramadies with searing cultural relevance? Choose your cultural stream. Cheer within your echo chamber. But no—everybody should watch Orange is the New Black.

You should watch Orange because it will make you a better American, or a better North American, or a better citizen of any country who cares at all about America, which you should, because we’re powerful. You should watch Orange because it will teach you about gender dysphoria and substance abuse and family dynamics other than your own and so make you a more empathetic and informed human being. You should watch Orange because it features the best stand-in for Ira Glass since Lynda Barry’s louse. Because it reveals all the ways men can be shit. Because it is brilliantly written and will improve your vocabulary, bitch. Because it gets sexy. Because it’s hilarious. Because this is bullshit. Because you’ll probably love it because if you’re reading this you’re probably already part of my echo chamber.