The “Golden Age” of television is drawing to a swift, spectacular close. The Sopranos and The Wire have exited our televisions, if not our conversations. Breaking Bad has already skidded into the final curve of its downward spiral. Within the next year, Mad Men–considered by the highest critical circles to be the best television show ever produced–will air its last episodes. Faced with both an increasing demand and decreasing supply of quality product, television executives have sought to replicate the success of these four banner programs by rehashing–not re-imagining–the seeming formula behind them. The formula: a morally complicated heterosexual white male leads a predominantly male cast of characters through a world unfamiliar to the audience. However de facto the role may seem in analysis (there are arguments to be made that Peggy is the main character of Mad Men, Jesse the main character of Breaking Bad) Don Draper is the central point of entry to the world of advertising in 1960s, as, one could argue, David Simon is for inner city Baltimore on The Wire. Too many shows have tried with objectively mixed results to capitalize fully on this model. From the middling Boardwalk Empire to the equine bloodlust of Luck, from Netflix’s House of Cards to even, one could argue, Louie, the “Difficult Men” model has proved to have diminishing returns. Try as these shows do, they fail nevertheless.
Orange is the New Black is the first and, at this current juncture, sole exception to this trend. It accomplishes this not by adhering to the model of its “prestige” predecessors, but by diverging from it almost entirely. An overwhelming majority of the cast is female. Every rung of the socioeconomic ladder is represented. Minority characters are given equal screen time to their white counterparts, which is rare; and more importantly, they are given equal depths of characterization, which is even rarer. The narrative includes straight, gay, bisexual, and transgender characters and it does so without ever stereotyping or condescending to any of those sexual identities. In a television landscape hellbent on retreading paths to total cessation of path-being, Orange is the New Black is the most surprising and welcome detour in recent memory. The lone downside may be that the show isn’t technically on television.
Compounding all the aforementioned, everything about the show itself is just super fucking uniformly great. The setting, a women’s penitentiary in New York state, is great. The actors who play the inmates, their families, the guards are across-the-board great. The characters they play are great, and the arcs those characters follow are great. Even Jason Biggs is great. Orange is the New Black would have been recommendable based on its idiosyncrasies alone. That these idiosyncrasies are leveraged to the degrees that they are makes recommending the show less a choice and more an imperative. In conclusion: great.
The mutability of the characters’ desires is a huge part of this greatness. Whether it’s a Park Slope elitist (*represent*) or a delusional Staten Island broad or woebegone desk jockey, these are characters who want different things at different times, like IRL people. This is why Tyrion Lannister is the most captivating character on Game of Thrones, why Peter Russo was the most memorable role on House of Cards. While the characterizations of Tywin Lannister and Frank Underwood are slave to the unwavering pursuit of power, Tyrion and Russo are freed (and destroyed) by their endless, variable desires. Imagine a whole show populated with characters like that. Or don’t imagine it because it’s real. This is it.
And, and, and for all it’s bipolar thematic swings from tragic to comic, Orange is the New Black is subtle. Take the reveal of (Crazy Eyes) Suzanne’s parents. She is a psychologically unstable black woman who pisses on the floor in one scene and quotes Shakespeare verbatim in the next. Her parents are a meek, old white couple. The relationship is never questioned, or revisited, yet it changes the whole perception of the character in a single shot. What other show does this with a minor character? What other show does this with any character? The list is short, and growing shorter by the day.
When Mad Men ends television will enter a new era. It may be its “Silver Age.” It may be its “Second Golden Age.” Whatever it is it starts with this show.
Strawberry Verdict: 4.75 out of 5 Strawberries