Matt Haviland looks at the premiere episode of the new Netflix series…
Here we are, guys. Another Netflix Original Series (this time based on Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison). High production values, famous talent, and solid writing. We’re entering the online age of HBO. With positive but not ecstatic reviews for the platform’s best-received series, however (and these shows clutching their report cards before the yawning cliffs of Hemlock Grove and obscurities Lillyhammer and Bad Samaritans), Netflix hasn’t exactly achieved The Sopranos. The problem is, if you’re going to release every episode at once, and throw them into a buffet of movies we love eating and television we scarf down to survive, you’ve got to make us ravenous. Not nippy, not hungry. Not even really hungry. You’ve gotta starve us of entertainment in a room with no wi-fi and waft in the smell of Jason Biggs once every couple weeks. You’ve gotta eliminate our daily responsibilities, cancel cable television, and then force us to watch exactly one episode every week. In other words, it’s literally impossible to maintain excitement about a Netflix Original Series.
Okay, we were excited about Arrested Development. Before it happened. Once it came out, everyone forgot about it. Television is an event because you’re filling high-traffic time slots with programs that have suspense built-in. If the first episode is magnificent, we’re gonna have to wait until next week to see what happens. That’s why people will spend fifty hours hanging on Don Draper’s every word, but approach a four-hour masterpiece like Seven Samurai and think, “Am I gonna sit for the whole thing?” (Not four hours, even, but we will round up.) When Netflix releases an entire series at once, they’re skirting the line a little too closely. Breaking twelve hours into thirteen fifty-minute episodes seems arbitrary. Best-case scenario, we like the first episode so much that we watch the second… and we like the second so much that we watch the third… and we do that until the series is over.
But psychologically, that’s demanding more free time than a season of Mad Men, because in this case, our short attention spans skip hand-in-hand with our need for instant gratification and continue straight off a cliff. We can have it all now, but that it’s gonna take thirteen hours to have it? We’re gonna say, “Nah.” People will marathon Breaking Bad because they saw the raving fans on Facebook and wanted to get caught up for the new season. They bypass attention-span because it becomes a social activity slash requirement (“You haven’t seen Breaking Bad?!”), and then the new episodes becomes an event (“You gotta watch it before the final season!”). If Breaking Bad was released all at once on Netflix, I bet the audience would have dropped by eighty percent automatically. Mad Men, too. Maybe not Game of Thrones, because that’s been established as a story, but anything we don’t already care about cannot possibly be cared about if we’re gonna have to sit there for half-a-day and then, best-case scenario, return to a world that’s already viewed and forgotten about it (or are busy shouting “Dumbledore died!” to ruin our enjoyment). The only way to do that is to somehow create the sense that nobody cares about it, and have it so good that everybody will someday care about it, so the people who watch it now are gonna be so hip when everyone gets around to it. If it starts out popular, there’s no hope, because who can build their Facebook identity talking about a heavily-advertised movie over more than one status? So the only social gratification comes from watching it all at once, and we don’t want to watch anything that long all at once, and we know we’re not gonna get our rocks off being the first person to have seen the damn thing, anyway.
“Wait,” you say. “What about old shows? We watch them without any social push or new episodes.” I would make the hypothesis that people will go back and watch them because they’ve already become a social thing, and that power seems to last even after the event factor vanishes. People will rediscover Six Feet Under forever, and can keep coming back to refresh the conversation of those who joined the club already. The Sopranos is still an event because of nostalgia and Best Ever lists. When you watch it, you become a better person, says the all-powerful critic. (James Gandolfini’s passing sort of resurrected it, too.) But if you’re gonna ask us to commit to an entire season of a show that nobody has ever seen, the chances of social momentum are greatly diminished (because how can you get momentum when the finish line is crossed already?)–and the singular event of it hitting Netflix is diminished before you even get through the first episode. There was one chunk of anticipation and then a long sigh of, “Well, here they are.” So really, the only way you’re going to get mass viewership is through critics absolutely raving about the thing – so that it becomes not a question of, “How cool am I for watching?” but “How much have I missed by not watching? Will I no longer be the connoisseur of fine television drama?”
So that’s why Netflix should rethink its approach. Even if we were given a brand new season of Mad Men, the excitement would be gone almost right away. People can’t be expected to invent suspense for themselves when the end-credits (our chance to absorb the excitement of a cliffhanger) are relegated to a tiny screen in the top left corner while everywhere else is telling you, “Hey, the answer’s right here!” Which is a shame, because try as I might to avoid it, the critical consensus on Orange is the New Black ambushed me before the episodes even went online… and it wasn’t good. How can you expect anyone to jump into a huge time commitment with virtually no chance of suspense when the first episode got an eighty percent score on Metacritic? Sorry, but with this format, critical consensus has almost one hundred percent control of viewership. Netflix could have released 2013’s answer to The Sopranos, in terms of innovation (cough, Enlightened, cough), but if the critics don’t like your first episode, a series that was never guaranteed success anyway (cough, cough, cough) is basically guaranteed failure.
I really enjoyed Orange is the New Black. Whereas you need to watch three hours of C-SPAN to even begin to understand House of Cards (“Have your pencils ready, folks… Begin taking notes!” “Wait, who is Kevin Spacey supposed to be double-crossing?”), this series is a welcome breather. Brassy seventies soul bathes a baby being washed in the sink. Soon-to-be-locked-up Piper Chapman tells us how she’s “always loved getting clean” over a camera that moves with such loving patience through her life of bathing that we already deeply care about her. Then we receive the first of many surprise juxtapositions when the camera cuts to Piper Chapman as she is now, sobbing naked in a prison shower as the camera inches down her body to the dirty, dirty linoleum floor.
There’s a sense of warmth here that is such a refreshment in our age of dissatisfaction. Having not read the reviews yet (you probably know more about them than I do), I would guess that most of the critical skepticism has to do with the fact that nobody here hates the world. These days, we can only welcome a character’s smile if we know that it’s masking misery. We can only enjoy adventure if it’s served with a dash of beheadings. Well you know what? Orange is the New Black plays like Harry Potter’s first year at Hogwarts. A graceful woman goes to a medium security prison. She’s had her brushes with mischief in the past — and they were just unlucky enough to doom her to fifteen months of rubbing shoulders with women who are actually dangerous. But only slightly dangerous. More like “rambunctious and lower-middle-class.” That’s enough conflict and discovery to set us up for laughs and maybe even some good old fashioned perspective from down the way. There is mild racial conflict in the Litchfield, New York correctional institution that’s explained as “taking care of our own,” and you get the sense that “care” is the main word. Furthermore, that everyone is going to work it out before the end. Why can’t we enjoy shows where personal growth only demands the equivalent of stuttering during your book report?
In an early scene, Piper Chapman’s friend says, “How the fuck are you going to jail tomorrow?” If the Netflix format allowed us to be hooked, we would be hooked by that question. Here is a good woman (lovingly-yet-pragmatically played by Taylor Schilling) who is somehow going to prison. The question of “Why?” is stimulating. Unfortunately, it’s answered right away. “She smuggled money for her drug dealing, lesbian lover” sounds more exciting on paper than it is on-screen. Chapman’s agency is instead swallowed by low stakes and bland, “I did it for love!” reasoning. You can work wonders with hearts and kisses (watch Enlightened, already!), but this good-natured criminal past feels shallow. What’s more interesting are the connections to American Pie. Fiance Jason Biggs asks Piper why she’s kept her past from him when he told her about everything, including: “the webcam horror” and “the penis-shaving incident.” If you learned about sex watching American Pie after your friends’ parents went to sleep, your heart will skip a beat. And with Natasha Lyonne (best known as Jessica, the jaded older girl who seems to know everything Jason Biggs and company don’t) spreading “junkie wisdom” through the prison, I was excited for a second, thinking these were older versions of our beloved characters from 1998 (“Who else is gonna show up?”). Unfortunately, Jason Biggs is named Larry Bloom, and there are no direct connections between each series.
Where has our appreciation for the summer popcorn flick gone? Jason Biggs’s presence should have already told you that this is a coming-of-age story in the gentle manner of American Pie (his “Not again!” face will probably be seen once per episode). Chapman is going to lose her innocence in that prison, but only a little bit. When she walks away from her bloody tampon sandwich and the grinning amusement of her peers, Piper verges on the gritty breakdown we caught a glimpse of in the shower. But guess what? Donna Pinciotti — er, Alex Vause, Chapman’s lesbian lover, is in Litchfield prison, too! We aren’t given the opportunity to wonder how serious things will get because, when Alex taps her on the shoulder, Piper gives a shout to the heavens worthy of iCarly. We know things won’t get too gritty. Who cares? We should judge shows by how well they deliver on their intentions. The premise here is a warmhearted look at the foibles of a woman who’s stuck in a prison full of friendly women with sassy attitudes. What’s it going to be, Oz? A fatherly prison officer tells Piper (and us), “Miss Chapman, no one’s going to mess with you here unless you let them. This isn’t Oz.” These are just relatable cases of cognitive dissonance with good people steering the wheel. Watch episode one and go out for a summer drive to Sheryl Crow. You’ll want to soak up the sun. (Don’t real people love doing that?)
But that doesn’t matter. You’re not missing anything by missing Orange is the New Black. So how can I tell you otherwise? How could I ask you to make thirteen hour-long gaps in your weekend so you can experience feel-good television? I can recommend Mad Men because season seven is headed our way, and Matthew Weiner spent 2013 revving into mind-blowing overdrive (with such subtlety that we didn’t even notice until episode eight). Obviously, season seven is going to change your life. Not here. With its color scheme aped from Arrested Development, there’s nothing new under this hood, and without the balls to exist in the American Pie universe (though that would have been so cool, and I would sign up to watch every episode of that show), there’s nothing you’ll deepen by watching this. Orange is the New Black gets a seven because its title doubles as a mission statement: take blackhearted television and make it friendlier. We’ve realized, today, that feeling good is not a good enough reason to watch something if you’re not covering several other bases. Oh well. Cue up the British Office and get ready to impress your friends with quotes from the original Michael Scott. We’ll press “Like” twice.