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‘Orange Is the New Black’ Is Netflix’s Only Great Drama

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Netflix has a drama problem.

Ask any critic which series represent the streaming behemoth at its best and you’ll get a list of bittersweet, experimental half hours: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, BoJack Horseman, Master of None, and, depending on their tolerance for yuppie bullshit, maybe even Love. Ask any casual viewer which shows they like to binge on and you’ll get a list of easy, addictive sitcoms, both acquired and original: Parks and Rec, The Office, The Ranch, and, depending on their tolerance for reboot bullshit, maybe even Fuller House.

What you won’t get is a list of dramas, particularly the ones developed in-house. There’s no slower-going than the drawn-out, loosely plotted endurance tests that take up an increasing large portion of the Netflix bench. Remember all those hours Frank Underwood spent hyping up his stupid jobs plan? Me neither, because they went precisely nowhere worth remembering.

And then there’s Orange Is the New Black, the women’s prison show that could.

Jenji Kohan’s incarceration ensemble piece unleashes its fourth season this Friday. It’s a stellar batch of episodes, but not because it reinvents the show’s essential elements — it leans into them. Viewers have noted a few obvious trends in Orange’s development, and here they’re accelerated: Piper recedes further into the background; new characters arrive to fill the vacuum; old characters keep getting the nuance and definition that other series reserve for a clique-sized core cast.

This mosaic, deceptively sprawling and carefully managed, is what makes Orange unlike anything else on television. It’s also what makes the show perfectly suited for Netflix — and the only drama to date to turn its format’s pitfalls into a feature rather than a bug.

More than any provider since HBO, and in a deliberate attempt to position itself as that channel’s successor, Netflix prides itself on creative freedom. Netflix doesn’t say no, even when the question is, “Can you pay me to schlep an entire crew to South America and film my ayahuasca rants?” Over time, though, this strategy has become a victim of its own success. “We decided it would be our role not to coach the creatives because it really wasn’t our wheelhouse,” is a self-evidently ridiculous statement when held up against some of the results: later House of Cards, the second season of Daredevil, the entirety of Bloodline. The archetypal flawed Netflix show is bloated on every level, from the episode to the season. It wastes time, stretches out, goes slack. It takes up space not because it needs to, but because the space is there.

Orange Is the New Black avoids this, and it’s virtually alone among Netflix dramas in doing so. (Comedies, which could use a few minutes of wiggle room from the networks’ merciless 22-minute cutoff, are more forgiving; meanwhile, pacing issues keep good series like Jessica Jones from becoming great.) That’s because, thematically and spiritually and in size, Orange has expanded along with its running time.

What began as the story of one audience surrogate now has more than 40 characters — and none with any more than a tenuous claim to truly owning the show. This is not an approach that lends itself to a streamlined narrative. But, unlike its peers, Orange isn’t trying to have one. Seasons 1 and 2 were centralized and plot-driven: We adjusted to prison life along with the then-protagonist, and met an out-and-out villain who split the prison in two. Season 3, though, shed the premise of a unifying arc entirely in favor of a head-spinning constellation of subplots. Try to keep track: a prisoner-run business selling used panties to internet pervs, a cult with a mute-by-choice murderer as its messiah, a black inmate’s feigned-then-sincere conversion to Judaism, and the prison’s absorption into a soulless corporation all played out in parallel — sometimes overlapping, sometimes not.

A dense patchwork like this allows the writers to shift and expand their focus, all without worrying about the time constraints even HBO can’t escape. (No commercials, sure, but there’s not even a given hour any particular episode has to be over.) It also allows episodes to play out like a collection of sometimes-weird short stories rather than the tightly structured plays we’ve come to expect from drama’s top performers. We’ll likely never have the Orange version of “The Suitcase,” but in its place we have dozens of parts, some of them equally powerful, that add up to a compelling whole.

This anthology quality is exceedingly rare, given that even the biggest casts tend to have a clear internal hierarchy. In fact, there’s only one other show like it: Structurally, if not thematically, Game of Thrones is Orange’s closest living relative. Both shows pack in enough characters, conflicts, and relationships to risk confusion; Thrones kicks off every episode by pointing out where everyone is on a map. Unlike Thrones, though, Orange has a couple of built-in devices to keep its chaotic network of story lines from spiraling too far out of control. The very premise of Orange keeps everyone securely in one place, at such close quarters that even the prison population’s racial self-segregation can’t keep different factions from interacting. Then there’s the matter of the binge-watch, a compulsive habit that comes with a litany of downsides. But Orange has turned lightning-fast consumption to its advantage, letting certain stories lie dormant for a few episodes because it’ll be hours, not weeks, before the viewer sees them revisited. The show doesn’t have to worry about that when it loops back to give, say, emo eyeliner aficionado Flaca some motivation.

This doesn’t leave Orange completely immune from structural issues; seasons end with several balls up in the air, and the fourth is no exception. (It’s not immune from issues-issues either. Piper’s ex-fiancé is long gone, but he still leaves a foul, extremely whiny taste in our mouths, and Matt McGorry’s hasty departure made little to no sense for his candy-sweet character.) It does mean that Orange is doing something no other show on Netflix can. To say that Orange has a wandering narrative eye, that its building blocks bleed into one another to form an overwhelming whole, that it’s more crowded with detail than its setting is with bodies — none of these are the criticisms they’d be of any other show. Instead, they’re the essential DNA of this towering, rambunctious work of empathy. And they wouldn’t be possible anywhere else.