Best New TV Show of 2013: Orange is the New Black

January 12, 2014 in Best Of, Reviews, TV by pacejmiller

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Last year was a huge year in television. We witnessed the end of arguably the greatest TV drama of all time, Breaking Bad, said bye to the crying of Carrie Mathison in Homeland, and bid a fond farewell to TV’s favourite serial killer despite Dexter‘s stinky ending, while popular shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones continued to dominate the ratings.

Out of loyalty and stubbornness I also continued tuning into The Mentalist (which finally brought a merciful end to the Red John arc) and Revenge (which has reached its rinse and repeat cycle), both of which are on a downward spiral of quality, as well as one of the most underrated and compelling shows still on TV, The Good Wife. I also watched some more of American Horror Story but it just got a little too much for me, I guess.

Of course, I also sampled an assortment of new shows, some of which I abandoned after a few episodes and others which I saw to the end of the first season.

There’s Bates Motel, the modern re-imagining of Psycho and the origins of Norman Bates starring Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga. I really enjoyed Hannibal, based on the adventures of Dr Lecter (played by aptly named actor Mads Mikkelsen) and Claire Danes’ real-life husband (Hugh Dancy), and thought House of Cards was one of the best-made and best-acted shows thanks to the talents of Kevin Spacey and Kate Mara. I tried out retro spy show The Americans with Keri Russell and the gritty Liev Shreiber drama Ray Donovan, as well as the highly anticipated Marvel’s Agents of Shield, a poor man’s made-for-TV Avengers. I saw some potential in Karl Urban’s Almost Human, about android police offers, and found Michael Sheen’s Masters of Sex provocatively brilliant. I also loved the Canadian sci-fi Orphan Black, starring the insanely talented Tatiana Maslany as a bunch of clones.

But of all the new shows I watched in 2013, one stood above the rest, and that was Orange is the New Black, another brilliant Netflix series that came out of nowhere to suck in like crack cocaine. I never thought I would be attracted to a show about a women’s prison, but Orange is the New Black demonstrates once again that nothing beats good writing.

It’s an interesting premise that makes you feel like it could happen to anyone, including you. Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who just got engaged to the guy who screwed the pie in American Pie (Jason Biggs) is sent to prison for a year for something she did a decade ago for a former girlfriend (yes, she was a lesbian). The show follows Piper as she is introduced to a most fascinating prison environment and must learn her place in the hierarchy — both with the warden and guards as well as the inmates — in order to survive, while also endeavouring to keep her relationship with pie guy alive on the outside. Oh, and the ex-girlfriend who put her there (played by a magnetic Laura Prepon) just happens to be in the same prison.

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Supposedly based on a true story (it’s based on a book of the same name), Orange is the New Blaccould have been a gritty prison drama, but instead it’s one of the wittiest and funniest shows on TV. The writing is so sharp and tight, with each episode having clear and specific plot lines and almost always ending on some kind of unexpected event, insightful life lesson or cliffhanger, or all of the above. I’m not surprised it’s the new project of Weeds creator Jenji Kohan because it has the same kind of quirkiness and edginess, where you constantly find yourself shocked and amused at the same time while also caring deeply for the characters.

Speaking of which, one of the things that makes the show so fantastic is the characters. Though the show centers around Piper, each episode focuses on a different inmate, each with their own unique personalities, backgrounds and stories. We have these stereotypes of what women prisoners are supposed to be like, but this show treats them like real, multi-dimensional people with real and complex issues, and somehow finds way to have fun with that at the same time without coming across as being insensitive. There’s the woman who runs the kitchen, and effectively, the prison; the woman known as Crazy Eyes because, well, she has crazy eyes; the transsexual hairdresser who is still married to his wife; the Latino inmate who enters a relationship with a prison guard; and her pathetic mother, who is in there with her. That’s just a small sample of the types of characters the show chooses to explore every episode, and that doesn’t even include the correctional officers who are very fascinating themselves, including the nasty and cringingly hilarious sexual deviant known as “Pornstache”.

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Each week offers something new and exciting through these character backstories while keeping the main and other minor story arcs in progression. The show employs a clever flashback structure that really helps audiences get into the minds of the characters and have the ability to change the way you think of them in a hurry. Everyone has their own secrets, hardships and struggles, and it’s all gradually and strategically revealed to us over the course of the 13-episode first season. The carefully controlled way the show unfolds, complete with ample servings of twists and turns, is yet another testament to the wonderful writers on the show.

The performances are outstanding. I had only seen Schilling in the much maligned Nicholas Sparks adaptation, The Lucky One, with Zac Efron, and I didn’t think much of her then. But she is great in this show, displaying an adorable mix of naivete angst, fear, vulnerability, strength and compassion. Her chemistry with Biggs is also surprisingly good, even though she looks older. If there is a complaint, it’s that she can be really stupid sometimes, but I suppose that’s how they create the drama, so it’s more the fault of the character than Schilling’s acting. Everyone’s really good, but the standout for me is Laura Prepon, who will sadly only be in four episodes in the second season, apparently due to some crazy Scientology reason (yes, she an Tom Cruise believe in the same god). Apart from looking really foxy, Prepon just has this amazing screen presence and demeanor that makes her seems more composed than everybody else all the time.

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So there you have it, my pick for the best new series of 2013. Orange is the New Black is one of those rare shows where both the comedy and the drama are equally effective and mesh together so well that the tone never feels uneven, and every episode offers something new so it never feels repetitive. Anyway, I can’t wait for season 2, which should come out hopefully during the US summer this year.

PS: I gave up on Under the Dome even before I watched the first episode after only feedback I got from multiple sources was “rubbish”.

PPS: One new 2014 show I am really forward to is True Detective, starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, an anthology series about two detectives trying to track down a serial killer. First ep is due out Jan. 12.