clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Changed TV

As one of Netflix’s flagship series comes to an end, it’s worth looking back on how it altered not only the way television is made—but how it is watched

Netflix/Ringer illustration

So little has changed inside the four walls of Litchfield Penitentiary, and yet so much has transformed outside of them. That’s what newly paroled inmate Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) learns in the seventh and final season of Orange Is the New Black, as she struggles to readjust after 18 months on the inside. Litchfield may have experienced staffing changes, inmate turnover, and in one daring-if-failed experiment of a season, a convulsive riot. But the place remains, as institutions are designed to, spirit-crushingly static, resistant to any individuals who try to change it. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has continued at its normal pace: Piper’s brother had a baby; her ex has married her ex-best friend; her circle has long since adjusted to her absence. Piper’s been gone for a relatively short period of time, but she’s emerged into a landscape she can barely recognize.

The same could be said for Orange Is the New Black itself. Jenji Kohan’s carceral dramedy premiered in 2013, when Peak TV was still but a twinkle in Ted Sarandos’s eye. Along with House of Cards, Orange was half of the dual gauntlet thrown by the then-upstart streaming service making its first foray into original programming, give or take a Lilyhammer. The two series represented radically different, if equally ambitious, ideas of blockbuster programming—Netflix essentially covering its bases as it prepared to make a staggering bet. House of Cards brought together an Academy Award–winning star and a revered auteur for a grim, antihero-led, crisply photographed plunge into the political underworld. Though it presaged the blurred lines between film and television, House largely conformed to both mediums’ pre-existing ideas of prestige: star-fronted, cynical, and distinctly masculine.

From the beginning, Orange was different. Its signature creative force hailed from TV, not film; Kohan, an alumna of classic sitcoms like Mad About You and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, was coming off the successful run of her Showtime series Weeds. A suburban farce about a soccer mom who breaks into pot dealing, Weeds introduced a core element of Kohan’s creative signature: a tone that seesawed between searingly funny and deadly serious, with stakes that could turn from petty to dire on a moment’s notice. Orange kept this trademark and added another: the diverse, sprawling ensemble without a true protagonist, starting with a gateway figure but quickly outgrowing her. (This setup has been passed down virtually unchanged to Orange’s successor series, GLOW, which Kohan executive produces.)

House of Cards ended last year under extreme circumstances; accounts of sexual assault and harassment by Kevin Spacey forced an abrupt end to a once-marquee property. The specifics of the situation meant Cards conclusion became about far more than entertainment. Long-announced and intentionally planned, Orange’s home stretch prompts another kind of reflection. With both of Netflix’s opening salvos wrapped up, it’s a fitting occasion to look back on what’s shifted since that telltale “duh-dunnn” first echoed through the world’s living rooms.

Six years ago, conversations about diversity and representation had yet to become the lingua franca, in part because Orange had yet to start them. People of color, LGBT people, immigrants, and the disabled are not a trend. These communities predate any single show, as does art representing them, as does the desire for more of said art. But Orange did more to thrust these issues into the popular consciousness than any single show before or since. In contrast to a white, straight, and male default, the volume and confidence of Orange’s unconventional casting stood out like a yuppie Brooklynite in a prison. Orange didn’t just have a female protagonist; it had almost exclusively female roles. Orange didn’t just have black, queer, poor, or Asian characters; it had several of each, ensuring none were forced to stand alone or play mouthpiece. Orange didn’t dip its toe into inclusive storytelling; it dove in headfirst.

It’s hard to overstate the novelty, and therefore impact, this sea of then-unfamiliar faces had on audiences. This M.O. immediately yielded a bumper crop of rising stars: Uzo Aduba, as the eccentric yet well-meaning Suzanne Warren; Laverne Cox, as the transgender hairstylist Sophia Burset; Danielle Brooks, as the ebullient Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson. Simply by example, Orange started to redefine the idea of the protagonist, both in the sense of who could carry a show and whether a show had to be carried by a single person in the first place. By Kohan’s own admission, Piper was intended as a “Trojan horse” into stories less frequently placed at the center of a narrative. Once viewers had been trained to care about Piper’s fellow inmates, her purpose was served and her role receded to that of one bit player among many. Prison is, by definition, a place where society sequesters those it would prefer to forget: the sick, the old, the difficult, the marginalized. Orange gave them the spotlight.

The House of Cards prestige model is far from dead, even if the series itself has rapidly faded from our collective memory. Netflix, like other networks, remains eager to work with name-brand directors and ever-bigger stars. (Cards even inaugurated a long-term relationship with David Fincher, which has since yielded two seasons of Mindhunter and an upcoming feature.) But going forward, Orange’s template seems fated to be more influential. Television is too chaotic an industry to have an easily traceable domino fall of cause and effect. Still, looking at a landscape that now includes such perspective-driven series as Transparent, Jane the Virgin, High Maintenance, Master of None, Atlanta, Insecure, One Day at a Time, Euphoria, and Russian Doll, it’s hard to imagine all of them existing in a world without Orange as a precedent. GLOW may be the most direct follow-up to Orange, but it’s by no means the only show to bear its fingerprints.

The legacy of Orange as a series is inextricable from the rise of Netflix as a platform. Orange was one of the first shows most fans experienced via binge, a then-novel concept of marathoning a season hours at a time, often finishing in the space of a weekend. Streaming-native TV as a whole would take years to catch up to this titanic shift in viewing habits, overcompensating with bloated runtimes and abandoning structured episodes without a ready replacement. Orange, on the other hand, was a natural fit, intuiting this new rhythm on a miraculous first try. Such a massive cast, with scores of names to remember and bit players who fade into the background for hours at a time, likely couldn’t have worked on a weekly release schedule. On Netflix, Orange could open its second season by spending a full hour on Piper alone, assured viewers would just click a button afterward to rejoin the main action. It wasn’t just that Orange helped put streaming on the map. It was that Orange suggested there was a way to make TV specifically for streaming. The show’s home was also its format, and that format wasn’t just incidental to its artistic goals—it actively assisted in meeting them. What a lack of censors or commercial breaks was to cable, density could be for the internet.

In the years since Orange’s premiere, Netflix has seized on diversity as something of a calling card. Often, the company has done so cynically, as when it attempted to soften the blow of cancelling One Day at a Time by touting its bona fides. But Netflix has also backed this rhetoric up with real investment, starting with a show about women of every age, race, size, and sexual orientation forced to endure together. The animated rainbow logo that plays before every Netflix product stands for the queasy idea that catering to every demographic is good business for a corporation that wants to be in every household. Yet Orange was an early indication that Netflix’s global ambitions could also incentivize good art.

Season 7 of Orange is neither its worst nor its best. For a deliberately decentralized patchwork, an ending is an inherently tricky exercise. Why stop now when you’ve already made the case you could go on forever? The prison-industrial complex isn’t going to wind down anytime soon, nor will Litchfield run out of inmates. Orange tries to maneuver around this problem by awkwardly reattaching itself to Piper’s journey as she navigates parole, though the audience has long stopped viewing her as a surrogate. Still, Orange admirably multitasks by introducing yet more women for the system to indifferently persecute and the show to empathetically shade in, many of them through a topical subplot set at an ICE detention center. (One of the more tragic indications that Orange was well ahead of its time is how well positioned it is to address the carceral state’s latest horrific outgrowth.)

On top of these already significant undertakings, Orange lumps in the standard final-season work of revisiting old friends, whether transferred prisoners or fired guards. Understandably, the episodes visibly strain to accomplish everything they set out to, particularly toward the very end. Delivering closure, let alone dozens of forms of it, is hard. But there’s arguably no more Orange way to go out than biting off slightly more than it can chew. Besides, exactly how Orange ends is of little significance compared to how it will live on—and that was guaranteed long ago.