Best Show You’re Not Watching: “Orange Is the New Black”

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At a loss for something to watch these dog days of summer? I bet that you’ve been hearing about this new Orange is the New Black thing on Netflix and are curious to watch it but not curious enough to hit the “Input Source” button on your remote and fire up your AppleTV. I’m here to tell you it’s well worth the effort.

I wasn’t a fan of Weeds, so I wasn’t terribly excited about the promise of a women-in-prison drama from its creator, Jenji Kohan. But Orange is the New Black is a different animal entirely, and one that is both wonderfully entertaining and legitimately landmark television.

Here are seven reasons why you really need to check out the show, which has already been renewed for a second binge-ready season. Already watching? Add your own reasons in the comments!

(Unrelated: I have a fantasy that the show is actually called Orange Is the New Orphan Black and all the inmates are played by Tatiana Maslay.)

1. The Theme Song by Regina Spektor

It’s an original song written for the show by the anti-folk movement’s reigning queen of kook (a longtime LGBT ally), and while it drives some people crazy, I love it – it hits all the appropriate notes of bittersweet, angry, schizophrenic, rousing, and anguished. Oh heck, just listen to it for yourself:

2. The Opening Montage of Women’s Faces

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Yes, this show is those women’s stories. While at the start Orange seems to be the based-on-true-events tale of one soap-making Brooklyn blond (Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling) who finds herself thrown in the clink with a bunch of women of color, the show really belongs to the rest of the women. Piper is just our way in.

Each episode is dedicated to unraveling the complicated past of a different inmate – be it the persnickety old Haitian lady rumored to have murdered a man, the African-American transgender woman who runs the prison salon and is having her needed hormone supply taken away, or the soft-spoken Latina who arrives to find herself facing off with her own mother, who threw her and her siblings over for a drug dealer.

The show’s determination to turn the spotlight on a population that is generally misunderstood or ignored outright is in and of itself admirable, even revolutionary – we need to discuss issues like racial justice and prisoners’ rights outside of Very Special Episodes of Law & Order.  But beyond that, the stories are profoundly moving and make for exceptional television. I’ve never seen anything like it – Oz tread similar territory in its exploration of race and class behind bars, but its crime thriller packaging always distanced us from its characters. Here we’re looking right into these women’s eyes.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure that the faces in the montage are not the characters in the show (or not any of the central characters, anyway). If they are the faces of actual women in prison, it is pretty much the greatest opening titles sequence ever.

3. Taylor Schilling is Kind of Awesome

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Sure, her character is a bit of an idiot and normally someone I would hate (and that’s kind of part of the point). But I was madly in love with Schilling’s first series, Mercy (which also costarred Kate Mulgrew, oddly enough), and I love seeing her again. If you missed Mercy, Schilling was also in that Nicholas Sparks movie where Zac Efron stripped to his undies and she had a wordless turn at the very end of Argo. I like her, and I think she nails the balance of clueless privilege and genuine but unrefined good-heartedness that the role requires to bring us into the universe of the show.

4. The Rest of the Cast is Just as Awesome

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Hats off to the amazeballs Laura Prepon (doing an incredible job rebooting her image and career post-That-’70s-Show as a criminally sexy brunette lesbian international drug smuggler), Natasha Lyonne (it’s great to have her back!), Kate Mulgrew (rocking the perfect Brighton Beach dye-job as the Russian woman who runs the kitchen), Deborah Rush (Jerri Blank’s mom!!!), and Jason Biggs. And more hats off to the equally incredible supporting cast of lesser-knowns: standouts include Laverne Cox (as transwoman Sophia – and her real-life twin brother plays her pre-transition self in flashbacks), Dascha Polanco (as sweet inmate Dayanara, who is in the same prison as her horrible mom), Danielle Brooks (as library worker and hilarious loose cannon Taystee), Lea DeLaria (as lesbian heavy Big Boo) and Uzo Aduba (as breakout scene-stealer Crazy Eyes). In an age where television is still way behind the times in terms of diversity, it’s an incredible ensemble.

5. Its Handling of Sexuality is Pretty Amazing

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First off, half of the central characters (including the lead) are either lesbian or bisexual. For a show that’s not primarily about the queer experience (like, say, The L Word), that’s remarkable. And more than that, the way the show handles sexuality is refreshingly free of judgment or sensationalism. It’s simply a part of life – either inside a prison or out. The third ep (directed beautifully by one Jodie Foster) is devoted to the story of Sophia, a former fireman who underwent transition with the support of his wife to become the gorgeous, strong woman she is today. Before watching the show I had no idea that it would focus so much on queer issues, and I’m thrilled that it does (and does so well).

6. Officer Bennett (Matt McGorry)

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I’m not the first to write about the adorableness that is the prison’s lone hunk, Josh Bennett, played by newcomer McGorry (whom I think looks a bit like a jacked-up Ryan Buell from Paranormal State). But that doesn’t make him any less squeezable, does it? This former bodybuilder and CollegeHumor vet is one to watch.

7. Best Episode Names Ever

Ep. 2: “Tit Punch”

Ep. 3: “Lesbian Request Denied”

Ep. 5: “The Chickening”

Ep. 7: “Blood Donut”

Ep. 9: “F*cksgiving”

Those are my top seven reasons to turn on Orange.  (A few more: Yoga Joan‘s heavenly vocal patterns; the continually flabbergasted cuddlebear who runs the shop; the chicken.) Have you checked it out? No? Then get to it!

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