With ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ Netflix Sets Its Sight on HBO

/ Jul 16, 2013

orange is new black

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Orange Is the New Black,” the latest addition to the growing roster of original programming from Netflix, is the sort of transformational milestone that takes a medium in a new direction. For the emerging class of “TV shows” being distributed via the internet (technically referred to as over the top), “Orange Is the New Black” will be celebrated as the watershed moment when the best of what (used to be called) TV has to offer can only be seen via such new, unwired video distributors as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, and (perhaps) Apple. Man the lifeboats — a sea-change has arrived.

From nearly every angle of the dramatic video lens, “Orange Is the New Black” is a masterpiece of texture, woven by intense character interactions centered on the life of a young, recently-engaged woman, serving a 15-month sentence for carrying money for a drug cartel. What separates Netflix’s latest original show from others of its kind is its ability to seamlessly weave together disparate story arcs revealing how various characters wound up behind bars. What could have been a heavy-handed series of plotlines told in banal flashback form are instead evocative, often heart-wrenching turning points presented in a straightforward manner.

The plot is based on the real life experiences of Piper Kerman’s memoir, “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.” Kerman serves in an advisory capacity for the show, which was already renewed for a second season in advance of its July 11 debut. Netflix is putting money behind its programming aspirations.

This view of life behind bars at a women’s correctional facility is no exercise in prurient titillation; in fact, the prison setting is just a metaphor for any setting where man’s inhumanity to man can be explored under a microscope revealing intersecting and diverging story arcs. At a higher level, the sort of tribal behavior we see in “Orange Is the New Black” varies little from what you would find in your average melodrama about office politics or high school rivalries. What separates Jenji Kohan’s creation (she of “Weeds” fame) is a repertoire of actors whose performances are almost uniformly brilliant, resulting in the sort of ensemble work recognized by peers on Emmy night.

At the center of this addictive hurricane of dramatic force is Taylor Schilling who stars as Piper Chapman. She, along with her former lover (played by Laura Prepon), is behind bars for their part in a drug smuggling operation. Schilling is a stereotypical WASP character forced to deal with the sort of nightmarish encounters never imagined during her safe days in the dorm at Smith College. Schilling is engaged to Larry, a struggling 34-year-old writer living off his parent’s begrudging good graces. Jason Biggs, who we have seen as the star of the “American Pie” series of films, approaches the role but never attacks it — one of the minor complaints that mar near perfection. I am undecided as to whether Schilling deliberately underplays her role, allowing the sterling supporting cast to carry the load, or whether she is terribly miscast. After viewing eight of 13 episodes, the jury is out. (Yes, I am a binge viewer.)

The ensemble is overflowing with brilliance, most notably veteran actress Kate Mulgrew as Galina ‘Red’ Reznikov, the stern major domo of the prison kitchen. Mulgrew approaches the role with that essence of power conveyed less by over emoting and hand waving and more from carefully measured laser-beam gazes and an economy of meaningful dialog. Joining her with a superb performance is Natasha Lyonne, in an art-imitates- life turn as drug addict facing serious family issues while going cold turkey. And let’s not leave out the work of a slew of character actors — Michelle Hurst as Miss Claudette, Pablo Schreiber as George Mendez, the unctuous guard without any moral compass, and Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset, a transgender woman who is both the scorn and conscience of her peers.

A few things bother me beyond some of the lead performances, the most of notable which is the whole Jewish-shiksa thing that goes on between Larry and his WASP -y wife to be. The point of that overplayed boy-girl dynamic (dating back to Old Time Radio days) seems both ill conceived and quite trivial in grand scheme of things.

Without going into the business models of future television distribution, the goal of which is to disrupt cable and satellite services, Netflix understands that the future of its business is based on reducing subscriber churn and attracting new customers — especially the growing group of “cord cutters.” One way of achieving that goal is to offer original content, following the path created decades ago by HBO and Showtime. I, for one, would have nuked my Showtime subscription years ago if it weren’t for “Nurse Jackie,” “Dexter,” and now “Ray Donovan.” In fact, we opted to dole out an extra ten spot for Starz just to watch “Magic City.” For those who think a small handful of shows cannot make or break a network are not familiar with the 80-20 rule.  Netflix, whose customer base was built offering selection and convenience to the video rental crowd, succeeded in euthanizing Blockbuster and its ilk. Now, with 29.7 million Netflix streamers in the U.S., the service has surpassed HBO in number of domestic subscribers. If the net result of this digital dogfight is new, compelling fare for multi-screen viewers, we should have some great content on the horizon.

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