What Netflix has been doing is brilliant. Despite their plummeting stocks and a few shaky attempts to liven up their online presence, their original programming has been smart, controversial, and unique. Everyone has been talking about programs, which seem to own pop culture news the month of their release. To give you a brief review- they’ve so far released: House of Cards, Hemlock Grove, Arrested Development, and Orange is the New Black, all within 2013.
While House of Cards was a spectacular debut that has garnered well-deserved attention at the Emmy’s, Orange is the New Black may actually be a better programming in many important ways:
1.) It’s definitively television
HOC was beautifully shot, expertly written, and deliciously clever. But it came from the mind of a cinematic director, was shot in cinematic format, and used popular film actors. I love myself some movie-like TV, but it’s sort of cheating the system. OITNB follows a more traditional tele-visual model with an ingenious showrunner and a cast of TV regulars, fresh new faces, and classic 90’s stars (Laura Prepon, Taylor Schilling, Jason Biggs and Natasha Lyonne, respectively). It’s a more lofty and challenging prospect to create a classic TV structure in the new era’s instant-access structure. Also, it’s based on a real-life memoir, which adds adherence to the truth to the list of challenges faced and subsequently conquered by the program.
2.) It’s hilarious
TV drama is a relatively safe bet for the work Netflix is doing. These programs can rely on the high stakes and weighty seriousness of each episode to become water-cooler fodder. Arrested Development had its pre-established fan-base and Hemlock Grove plays off the Twilight template and doesn’t bother with humor. But Orange is the New Black is poignant, honest, and at points ludicrously funny. Taylor Schilling, who until now has been firmly planted in my mind as Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged, is a gifted comedienne with a range of expressions and a physicality rarely seen in “pretty girls.”
3.) It’s feminist
Here’s by far the most important point of the program. This is the most rewarding program for women I have seen in a very long time, possibly ever. The show tackles every kind of female problem, from the mundane daily rituals of femininity to the purpose of marriage. These women end up in prison for many reasons and the show explores each woman’s story deeply and sympathetically. Further, OITNB confronts bisexuality, homosexuality, and transsexuality with grace and openness.
4.) It’s diverse
The cast of characters comes in every color. While some may find it disappointing that such diversity only appears in a prison program (perhaps perpetuating existing stereotypes), OITNB addresses and dismisses most stereotypes while also acknowledging their existence. This can be dangerous territory, but the show again exhibits grace and awareness in their treatment of many races and cultures. Further, many of the characters are new actors who will undoubtedly earn accolades and new projects from their roles.
All of the above is refreshing and reassuring. Television doesn’t need to rely on tropes or templates to be popular or successful. It doesn’t need to be constantly heavy or serious. All it needs is a solid combination of heart, soul, and intellect, a talented cast and crew, and the creative freedom to hit hot-button issues frankly and passionately.