I’ve basically heard one major complaint over and over again about “Orange Is the New Black.” It’s usually delivered with a lot of urgency and a tinge of whininess, and it goes something like this: “I consumed all 13 episodes, and now I have nothing. Nothing [sob].”
I understand, my friends, I understand. I want more episodes, too. The new Netflix prison series is so terrific, so crowded with remarkable characters and buoyant performances, so original in its themes, that I couldn’t stop myself from bingeing, and now it’s all over.
It’s the Potato Chip Effect: You try one, and when you look up, the whole bag is gone. Like everyone who has mainlined “Orange Is the New Black,” like every reader who has written to grieve the year it will take before Netflix drops the second season, like the optimistic Twitter pal who sent out a photo of a filming permit for season 2 that was posted on a New York City street, I am bereft.
This is the down side of bingeing, which is encouraged by Netflix’s episode-dump approach to series release. When the show is as thoroughly engaging as “Orange,” the binge experience is definitely a high, a long rush of TV-style euphoria. But afterward you are left flat, with a big fat void and, if you still have brain cells, a few fond memories. Only days ago, the show was your new viewing lifeblood; now you’re already referring to it in the past tense, stricken with longing. Cut to Patty Duke crying, “I want a doll, I want a doll,” in “Valley of the Dolls.”
I truly wanted to stretch out the pleasure, savor each hour. But when a show is as addictive as “Orange,” it’s hard not to binge, even while your inner sober coach may be telling you to slow down. The story line, based on the memoir by Piper Kerman, could have been so pat: Privileged yuppie goes to jail, learns hard lessons about reality and her sheltered life. Instead, show creator Jenji Kohan gives us the population of a low-security women’s prison in all their mad, fierce, fickle glory. The characters aren’t just there as racially diverse cautionary tales for the lily white Piper. They aren’t reduced into symbols of bad choices. Ultimately, they are each given heart, soul, and wonderfully unexpected facets, like Uzo Aduba’s “Crazy Eyes,” who seems deluded and dangerous but, we discover, is a sweetly theatrical kook from a surprising background.
And how refreshing: They are almost all women. We’ve reached the point in TV drama where audiences are eager to take on the challenges of watching complex antiheroes. But for the most part, with Edie Falco on “Nurse Jackie” as the prime exception, we still haven’t embraced a significant number of female antiheroines. “Orange” flies in the face of that pattern, not just with the irresponsible and needy Piper but with most of her prison mates. Piper’s former lover, Alex, for example, is a great morally gray character (beautifully played by Laura Prepon). By the time we’ve seen her history, her choices make sense, even if they weren’t particularly smart or kind.
The men in Litchfield Prison are limited. Down the line, from the counselors to the guard known primarily as “Pornstache,” they are sexually twisted or clueless. They are like the parents in so many teen movies and TV shows — one-dimensional, there mostly as a backdrop for the main characters. But the women, many of whose back stories we follow, offer an embarrassment of riches. I can still hear the hoarse voice of Taryn Manning’s Tiffany, the prisoner who thinks she is God’s messenger. Such a terrifying and yet funny character. “She’s a lesbian,” Tiffany says at one point. “They lesbianing together.” I still smile at the dry humor of Natasha Lyonne’s Nicky, a recovering addict who always has a line at the ready. When Piper asks her why she’s drilling a hole in the wall, she says, “It’s an art piece representing the futility of blue collar labor in a technological age — and vaginas.” Also in the house: a nun, a transgendered former fireman, and a matriarchal Russian cook.
When the show is as engaging as “Orange,” the binge experience is definitely a high. But afterward you are left with a big fat void.
Even Piper, played with just the right balance of Brooklyn-style preciousness and willpower by Taylor Schilling, ultimately becomes fascinating. She doesn’t fit into a conventional class of sexual orientation, given her relationships with Larry (Jason Biggs) and Alex, and the “Orange” writers don’t strain to label her. They let her unfold to us, and to herself, within the walls of Litchfield. Like many of the best characters on the show, and on TV in general, Piper is not easily categorized. In that way, “Orange” can be an unusually expansive series.
So enjoy it. But heed this warning: The TV Surgeon General has determined that fast ingestion of “Orange” episodes may lead to fatigue, emptiness, and withdrawal. Proceed at your own risk.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.