Place To Be Nation Television Special: “Orange is the New Black” Season One Overview

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‘Orange is the New Black’ fever has seemingly come out of nowhere, with the Netflix series suddenly being discussed at water coolers everywhere (and certainly on Reddit) during the Summer TV doldrums. The show’s edgy humor entertained many and shocked some, but “Orange” was the must-see show of the Summer. Ben Morse and Todd Weber from The Place to Be Nation threaten violating their parole agreements and risk incarceration (not to mention scorn from their wives) to discuss the first season of “Orange is the New Black”. There are copious *SPOILERS* throughout, so read on at your own risk.

Americans are changing how they watch television, with many eschewing cable/satellite TV altogether in favor of streaming devices like the Roku or Apple TV. Roughly what percentage of TV that you watch is streamed via Hulu Plus, Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime or iTunes?

Ben: I’m using Netflix Instant a lot, but generally more to sample shows I wouldn’t watch otherwise as opposed to keeping up to date on new shows a season behind. Obviously the Netflix original series would be the exception to that, and I have a handful of shows I watch almost exclusively through Netflix on a year’s delay (“Sons of Anarchy” being the main one), but for the most part I’ll catch up on something via Netflix over the summer, then DVR new eps as they’re coming and catch up.

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I haven’t really used Hulu + or Amazon Prime yet, but I’m beginning to use iTunes for shows from outside of the U.S. (the final season of “Skins”) or with shorter seasons (“The League”).

Todd: Nine months out of the year, when “Game of Thrones” is not in-season, my wife and I have “cut the cord”. Most of the year, we watch only antenna television, Netflix streaming, Hulu Plus and premium shows like “Breaking Bad” on iTunes.

Two years ago we bought an Apple TV unit, which is a hockey puck-shaped device that receives wi-fi signals and broadcasts on one’s HDTV. We watch about 80% of our shows this way, and the rest (usually local news) on antenna TV.

I really don’t miss cable television all that much, with the notable exception of San Francisco Giants baseball and Sacramento Kings basketball, though some of my friends would say I’m doing myself a favor by omitting the watching of those particular teams from my daily routine.

Netflix released “Orange Is the New Black” simultaneously as a complete season on July 11, 2013. How’d you hear about the show, and what made you want to check it out?

Ben: A few factors figured in to my watching “Orange is the New Black.” To credit Netflix first, after watching the new season of Arrested Development, I decided to give “House of Cards” a shot and enjoyed that, so their brand had built up stock with me where I’m inclined to at least sample their new offerings; they also do a great job marketing both front and center when you log on and also via all the ads I saw throughout New York City. Word of mouth via early reviews didn’t hurt either.

If I’m being honest, though, my wife would be the main motivator, as she liked “Weeds” as well as “Mercy,” the short-lived show starring Taylor Schilling, who plays the lead on “Orange is the New Black” (as an additional fun fact, my wife realized she went to college her first semester with Schilling before transferring and actually knew her as they had both been theater majors at the time).

Todd: I check www.instantwatcher.com every day to see if something new is coming out on Netflix (the “new releases” section of our Netflix menu via Apple TV never seems to update). “Orange” was listed, and that night we saw a feature about “Orange” on Hulu Plus’ “EP Daily” show, which is sort of a Canadian “Entertainment Weekly” television show that covers movies, TV, and video games. “Orange” looked interesting, and was presented as a unique comedy on “EP Daily”. There really hasn’t been much else on this Summer (we tried watching NBC’s “Camp” but it was AWFUL), so we put ”Orange” on our instant queue.

I’m always looking for new shows that my wife and I will watch together, as I’ve soured on “Downton Abbey” as of late, and she’s never really been into “Monday Night RAW”. We’ve had the politically-charged “House of Cards”, which is also a Netflix-exclusive series, on our queue for some time now, but haven’t been that motivated to invest the time to watch it just yet (“Scandal” scratches that particular itch for us).

Jenji Kohan, the creator and writer of “Weeds”, chose “Orange Is the New Black” as her next project. Have you seen “Weeds”? How did the tone and quality of the show compare to “Orange Is the New Black” ?

Ben: I did not regularly watch “Weeds,” only occasionally being in the room when my wife had it on. The only real point of comparison for me would be I’d say “Orange is the New Black” felt a bit more mapped out, with a larger cast and more plotlines weaved into the tapestry, but the whole season being released at once could have played a role in Kohan’s approach there, I don’t know.

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Weeds

Todd: I never got into “Weeds”, though I really did try. If “Weeds” is similar to “Orange” in tone and pay-off, I’ll have to be a bit more patient and give the show more than two episodes before deciding it’s not worth my time.

Much has been made over the fact that “Orange Is the New Black” has a mostly-female cast. Did it occur groundbreaking to you while watching, or did it not really occur to you how different a show like this was?

Ben: It did not occur to me as groundbreaking when watching it. It’s not like male characters don’t exist, as the guards, Larry, etc. play important roles they’re just not the leads. I’d say what left more of a mark with me—and this would be consistent with “House of Cards”—would be the across-the-board strength of the cast rather than the gender; no weak links to be found.

On a surface level, it hit me more that the cast had so many significant and well-written non-white parts as opposed to the gender aspect.

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The cast of Orange is the New Black

Todd: I think I’d heard the fact that “Orange” had a mostly female cast before watching, and that the media thought that was a big deal. I suppose if “Orange” had been aired on FX, AMC or even HBO that more men may have been added to the show as a precautionary measure, but Netflix doesn’t care about ratings whatsoever, and that’s probably a good thing.

To quote Mikey from “Swingers”, “It didn’t occur to me” that the cast was largely female, and besides, “The Facts of Life” did it thirty-five years ago and no one batted an eye! (Coincidentally, living with Mrs. Garrett and Mindy Cohn would be a far greater punishment for a character than being sentenced to federal prison, but again, I digress).  If a show is well-written and acted convincingly, it really doesn’t matter what the gender ratio making up the cast happens to be.

All 13 episodes of “Orange Is the New Black” were released on the same day, at the same time. Did you binge-watch the show? How long did it take you to get through the entire season?

Ben: I did not binge-watch this; the only show I’ve really “binge-watched” to date has been the latest season of “Arrested Development.” It took me a few weeks to get through all 13 episodes; had my wife had her way, we probably would have finished within a week, but she tends more toward wanting to get on a roll with shows, whereas I’m usually a one-two episode a day type of guy.

Todd: On average, my wife and I watched the show every other night, alternating with other shows that we had saved up in our queue (usually “Downton Abbey” and “Top of the Lake”). On some weekends we watched 2-3 episodes at a time, but never would one describe it as obsessive binge-watching like we did with “Lost” five years ago.

“Orange Is the New Black” follows Piper Chapman, a thirty-something entrepreneur whose questionable past comes back to haunt her and she begins a 15 month sentence in federal prison. Though she’s the protagonist of the show, she’s hardly a virtuous heroine, and is instead consistently pretentious, foolish and impulsive. Was it difficult for you to empathize with Piper’s situation, or were you instead rooting for bad things to happen to her?

Ben: I never rooted for bad things to happen to Piper, and honestly, all the way to the end, despite what we learned about her and her transgressions, I wanted to see her get out. Part of this, admittedly, comes from her being the character I could most identify with on the show; I’m white, I’m fairly privileged, and I’ve got no concept of how I would survive in prison. I judged her for her failings and came to think less of her when it became clear she had major personality flaws as opposed to having just made a few youthful mistakes, but I never detached from the idea of “she represents me, I want me out of this situation,” which could speak to the strength of the work of Kohan, Schilling, etc., my own sense of self and prejudice, or some combination thereof.

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Piper

Todd: I started really disliking Piper about halfway through the show, and although she occasionally showed a redemptive quality or two (making the soap for Red, organizing the memorial for Tricia) I think we as an audience are not necessarily supposed to not be rooting for her but are to observe just how much she changes throughout. I know she’s our POV, but almost right away one starts saying “I would have handled that much differently”. She does evolve over the course of the show, and the building up and then erosion of her relationships with Larry, Nicky, and Alex reflect that change. The rage she shows in the season finale’s last scene really illustrates how different she’s become.

Piper’s fiancee, Larry, is left out to dry as Piper serves her time. As a writer, he deals with the situation the best he can, first by writing a column in the New York Times and later going on NPR to discuss his and Piper’s long-distance relationship. Did Larry come off as selfish, unsympathetic and annoying? Was it immature for him to handle the separation this way?

Ben: From the minute Larry watched “Mad Men” after telling Piper he would wait for her to do so, I didn’t like him. Tying back to my last answer, I really should have related more to Larry than anybody as, in addition to sharing with him the societal qualities I share with Piper, we’re both writers and if I’m being honest I’m not far off from him in personality. When he first started to “act out,” I thought him all those bad things you listed, because it seemed like he got the easy end of a tough bargain by far. As the show progressed and we learned the kind of person Piper could be, while I didn’t lose much sympathy for her, I gained some for Larry.

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Larry, Piper’s fiancee

It’s tough to call him immature when I could see myself handling the same situation the same way, but then again I’m pretty immature at times. I do like that they explored the “prison sentence for two” concept and hope it continues to be part of the show.

Todd: I suppose Larry is the link to the suburban white audience that makes up much of Netflix’s subscriber base, and technically he’s the one I relate to the most (ok, BESIDES Pornstache), but he’s a selfish tool throughout. The progression of Larry’s character seemed like one big pity party, and the only friends he seems to have are all connected to Piper (her brother, her best friend). Of course he’s in a tough situation that’s not his fault, but he became a whiny one-note loser pretty quickly. He writes and is interviewed about Piper’s incarceration without any consideration of her privacy. Couldn’t he at least have the courtesy to use an alias? He ends up professionally exploiting her situation, and that’s unfortunate.

Perhaps I’m projecting my own mishandling of a long-distance relationship (only my fiancee’s prison was Humboldt state…think “Flannel and Unshaven Legs are the New Black”) but I honestly think Larry is my least favorite character on the show. Maybe that’s some self-loathing thing on my part. Still, I think Larry should have channeled his loneliness into other pursuits.

“Orange Is the New Black” has perhaps the most fleshed-out supporting cast since “Lost” (and like “Lost”, uses flashbacks to develop its characters). Which supporting characters entertained you the most and why? Which member of the cast’s performance was the most impressive?

Ben: Again, with such a strong supporting cast—and maybe even calling a lot of them “supporting” would be unfair—it’s tough to pick favorites with so few duds. Of the characters who got full flashbacks devoted to them, I did find Pennsatucky and Miss Claudette to be my personal favorites. Taryn Manning had the tough task of making Pennsatucky both comic relief at times but also really the villain of the show, and she did a remarkable job. Michelle Hurst also had to find balance in portraying Miss Claudette with both edge and tenderness, but the intensity and vulnerability she’d vacillate between blew me away.

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Miss Claudette

Taystee and Crazy Eyes stood out for most people, I think, and as they should have. Of the other prisoners, I thought Sophia, Janae, Tricia, Yoga Jones and Big Boo all did a great job. Though she didn’t have a huge presence to start, as the season progressed Poussey became a really strong character. On the guard side, I thought Healy, Mendez and Caputo all made their mark.

Todd: I’m all in on Crazy Eyes. I never knew just what to expect from that character (from “marrying” Piper to being contrite and demure with her parents, the character had amazing, unpredictable range) and when she started reciting Shakespearean monologues, I had a new muse. Crazy Eyes may be my favorite character on a show since Tyrion Lannister.

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Crazy Eyes

Miss Claudette was alternately terrifying and sad; I wish we’d seen more of her appeal process and had a cleared picture of the bureaucracy involved in keeping her in prison. I enjoyed the tender moments she showed with both Piper and her long-lost love; but I certainly believed the motivation behind her actions when she snapped.

The Poussey/Taystee friendship was heartwarming and believable, and the disappointment Poussey feels when Taystee can’t stay out of jail after working so hard to get back out (she’s this show’s version of Shawshank’s “Brooks”) is real and touching.

I was also impressed with Kate Mulgrew as Red; to me the mark of a good actor/actress is if they can inhabit two or more characters in a believable manner. Mulgrew was so compelling as the Russian cook “Red”, I never thought of her as Captain Janeway except for the “Hey, isn’t that Janeway” moment most everyone has while watching the pilot.

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Red

I can not wait to see more of Chang, who made me fall off of the couch nearly every scene in which she was featured.

The diverse cast was almost uniformly good; towards the end I even starting liking the gaggle of Latina princesses led by Daya’s mom.

Not every character on “Orange Is the New Black” became a fan-favorite. Who did you feel was your least favorite supporting character? Do you think it was due to shallow writing or the actor’s performance?

Ben: I didn’t hate Red, and Kate Mulgrew did a great job, but I did think she got overexposed a bit. Not sure you could change that, but with such a vast, rich cast, I got burned out on her sometimes.

The romance between Daya and Bennett never grabbed me; it felt rushed and contrived on a show that generally did a good job avoiding those traps.

At the end of the day, the one character I didn’t get attached to due to performance would have to be Alex, and of course that’s a big one. I don’t really blame Laura Prepon, because she didn’t do anything wrong, per se, but she spent so many years playing one character—Donna on “That 70’s Show”—and has such a distinct voice, cadence, look, etc. that she doesn’t mask, so it’s hard to separate her from that.

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Alex

Todd: Outside of Piper and Larry themselves, I disliked Daya from the get-go; but I’m not necessarily sure that it was due to the actress’ performance. I think the character herself is so one-note that she brings every scene/plot she’s involved in down substantially. I think the show course-corrected after focusing so much on her early on; unfortunately she still has the unresolved pregnancy issue to deal with (presumably) next season, so we’ll still have to spend more time with Daya.

Likewise, Bennett the guard shows such poor judgement from what should be a likable, sympathetic character that he taints most of the plots he’s involved in. I got vocally angry every time he allowed Daya to flirt with him, and when her mom seduced him, I just rolled my eyes.

In the case of both Bennett and Daya, the characters come off as believably naive enough to make such mistakes; I suppose that in contrast to the other multi-faceted characters, they’re just one-note and annoying.

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Bennett and Daya

Though not totally down on the characters, I’m ambivalent towards Alex and Nicky. Both Natasha Lyonne and Laura Prepon are so ingrained in my mind as other characters that I struggled reconciling them as incarcerated lesbians. I think both actresses gave their best efforts, and I’m all for them getting work (especially the rarely-seen Lyonne), but I think using less recognizable actresses may have been less distracting and possibly aided the show. That’s a minor quibble, as both are excellent actresses and have tremendous screen presence.

The first season took many twists and turns. Was there a storyline more compelling than any of the others, or a favorite moment?

Ben: The primary storyline, Piper’s, always felt the most compelling to me, and I’d chalk that up as a positive for the show. That said, it didn’t stop other side plots from grabbing me as well, with the standouts including Taystee’s release, Healy’s strange lesbian fixation, Miss Claudette’s past unfolding, Sophia’s struggles with her family and even the relationship between Nicky and Lorna—oh, I should have mentioned Natasha Lyonne doing her best work in years.

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Nicky

Pretty much anything involving Pennsatucky would have to be included on my list, and her pushing that girl out of the wheelchair when trying to “heal” her might be my favorite moment of the season.

Todd: I enjoyed the initial conflict between Piper and Red, which really inducts the viewer into the politics of the prisoners and gives all of the various groups of inmates time to shine. When Crazy Eyes befriends Piper and Piper’s forced to accept her help, the show rose to another level for me. 

I also found Sophia’s journey and her family’s struggle compelling, and found both Yoga Jones’ reason for imprisonment and Tricia’s tragic story very moving.

My favorite scene however, was the Christmas pageant. At first it seemed as though the inmates were making too big a deal over a little show, but as rehearsals progressed you really see just how important this once-a-year event is toward the prisoners. I think Poussey and Black Cindy trying to one-up each other with improvised singing is my favorite scene of the show.

Some of the prison antics perhaps seemed a bit far-fetched. Did you feel there were any unnecessary plots or subplots? Were the problems minor, or did they tarnish an otherwise excellent program?

Ben: Again, the Daya/Bennett romance did nothing for me. The stuff with Red and Mendez proved necessary to advance a lot of non-Piper stuff, but I could have done with less time focused on it.

Todd: Besides the whiny Larry arc and previously mentioned Daya/Bennett coupling (and all of the subsequent attempts to frame Pornstache Mendez), I really tired of the drug smuggling plot with Pornstache and Red. I suppose the show needs dramatic situations for necessity of plot, and similar circumstances have happened in minimum-security prisons , but having the cartoonish Mendez be not only a jerk but a corrupt guard is a bit much.

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Mendez

I am very thankful for the nun character as a positive portrayal of a Christian, because otherwise the show REALLY picked on persons of faith. Both Pennsatucky’s flock and the church that sponsored Tiffany’s defense were unfortunately stereotypes of Christian extremes and were pretty unfair depictions.

I also thought the sudden onset of “Silent Bob’s” voice to really take me out of an otherwise beautiful moment during the Christmas pageant.

The show is very much for mature audiences only, with an abundance of nudity, frank depictions of homosexuality and an in-depth focus on a transgendered character. Are these depictions crucial to the fabric of the show, or would “Orange Is the New Black” find a potentially larger audience if it had toned down the sexuality?

Ben: “Orange is the New Black” would not have been the same show without the sexuality and head-on approach to mature subject matter. At times, I felt uncomfortable watching the show, and I consider that a good thing because it challenged my notions of comfort. I actually think without some of those elements, it could have run the risk of erring too much on the side of comedy, and not stood out from the pack of other programming.

Todd: Like “Oz” before it (and as seen in many prison documentaries over the years), the relationships and themes on “Orange” are realistic in regards to the subject matter of the show, and the show wouldn’t be authentic without them.

“Orange” certainly broke ground with Sophia’s flashback tale and subsequent struggle with hormone therapy while behind bars; I’m hard pressed to recall any other in-depth look at a transgendered character on any TV show in memory.

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Sophia

The show certainly wasn’t exploitative like a ‘70s film, but it had some pretty graphic situations that could’ve been implied rather than explicitly shown. I can’t recommend this show to everyone I know for those reasons.

The show’s finale featured an intense confrontation between Piper and Tiffany/“Pennsatucky” that left both characters forever changed. Were you satisfied with the conclusion of the season or did it feel that something was perhaps lacking?

Ben: Interestingly, the third to last episode of “House of Cards” felt like a finale, then the final two installments seemed almost to kick off a new season, and I’d argue the same here to some degree. Episode 11 has Larry’s appearance on NPR and then ends with him dropping the bomb on Piper that Alex did rat her out, which would seem an appropriate place to end the season, but instead we get two more episodes; go episodes, don’t get me wrong, but they did occasionally feel on borrowed time.

The fight between Piper and Pennsatucky certainly provided a powerful way to finish—the moment where Healy walks away in particular really hammered home the hopelessness of the situation—but in some aspects, their feud had somewhat tapered and then got built back up hurriedly. I didn’t walk away dissatisfied, but part of me feels Piper’s final confrontation of the season should have been with Alex or Larry, rather than those already taking place and Pennsatucky being the last person she interacts with. That said, obviously it provides quite a cliffhanger going into next season.

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Pennsatucky

Todd: I think that the most important conflict of the show was actually between Piper and Larry, and their engagement’s demise was the real apex of the first season.

The fight between Piper and Tiffany was certainly brutal, and the visual of a bloody Christmas angel in the snow is a powerful one, but the real impact of this show is an emotional and a psychological one and not an action-based fight seemingly to the death. I thought that Healy turning his back on Piper when he knew Pennsatucky had a weapon was unrealistic and ridiculous, no matter how much he dislikes lesbians.

A quick word about Tiffany/Pennsatucky; though the character was far from my favorite on the show, Taryn Manning’s performance was electrifying and absolutely impossible to not gravitate toward. I could not tear my eyes away from the character; if anyone wins an acting award for “Orange is The New Black” it should be Manning. She was simply that effective as a violently charismatic tweaker.

“Orange Is the New Black” has already been picked up for a second season and is filming now. Do you have any predictions for what’s coming next, and are there any things you’d like to see happen next season? Are there any characters you’d like to see more or less of?

Ben: I really have no predictions and look forward to going in somewhat blind, as I had no idea the show wouldn’t be one season and done with Piper’s sentence ending; I’m psyched to get more. I’m also curious if the second season will be held until next summer or debut sooner, as I’ve been unable to locate that info.

As to characters, I think it’s key to keep the balance they have, and not be tempted to focus too much on fan favorites or breakouts. Utilizing the entire strong ensemble should remain the show’s greatest strength.

Todd: Unfortunately I’ve been spoiled by some casting news regarding next season (though Netflix has denied several rumored changes), and my expectations for what happens next have changed as a result. Sometimes we spoil ourselves when we research things.

I only hope that not too much attention is paid to Piper (and her response to Alex and Nicky’s hookup), and now that we know backstories for many of the cast that more supporting players are given a chance to shine in featured plots. I’d be all for diminishing Larry’s role on the show, for instance, and seeing more from the perspective of Piper’s impossible-to-deal-with mother or her bizarre camper-dwelling brother (instead of simply using them to play off of Larry).

Whatever happens, my wife and I will prioritize watching “Orange is the New Black”’s second season as soon as it’s released. We greatly enjoyed discovering the show and are anxiously awaiting word for when season two begins.

That wraps up PTBN’s “OITNB” season one retrospective; thank you for reading, and what did YOU think of “Orange is the New Black”?  Click on Ben or Todd’s e-mail addresses below to write us your thoughts for a future feedback column. 

Author: Todd Weber

Old Man Weber, he just keeps rolling along. Send Todd an email