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Why Orange Is the New Black deserves even more respect than it already gets

It's the biggest TV drama trendsetter since The Sopranos.

Orange Is the New Black season three
The ladies of Litchfield deserve your respect and attention.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When The Sopranos debuted on HBO in 1999, its impact was seismic. Other TV networks immediately started trying to copy it. The show’s offbeat storytelling rhythms and antiheroic main character spread across the vast televisual landscape. And it won award after award after award.

Except … that’s not really true. It was eventually true, but it took a few years — and in some cases, the bulk of The Sopranos’ run — to play out. There was a lot of fumbling around, a lot of trial and error, and many false starts before the Sopranos model took root and helped birth the so-called "golden age of television." And it also wasn’t as if The Sopranos arrived out of nowhere; it was hugely indebted to TV shows that preceded it, most notably its fellow '90s babies Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and Oz.

But we live in 2016, not 1999, in a world where The Sopranos’ influence is everywhere, to the degree that copying the show has become a bit rote, a bit cliché. The question, often, is where is the next Sopranos, the next show that will upend everything you know about television?

Granted, it’s a bit early. These events tend to run in cycles of about 20 years. (The last American TV drama to truly shake up the industry pre-Sopranos was 1981 cop drama Hill Street Blues, for instance.) If another Sopranos is on the way, it might arrive in the next few years, not right now.

However, there’s one TV series out there that already occupies that level of cultural prominence, and people just aren’t talking about it as the natural heir to the "changed everything about TV drama" throne. I speak of Orange Is the New Black.

Orange Is the New Black’s most obvious innovation is its distribution model

Orange is the New Black
We’re a long way from when Orange is the New Black was just the doomed romance of Piper and Alex.

I first started thinking about this after Orange Is the New Black’s exemplary fourth season debuted in June. I had found the show’s third season a bit of a letdown, and the fourth season slow to start. But by the time season four reached its second half, I realized just how intricate and impressive it truly was.

The season’s final two episodes proved sorely controversial for the method and manner in which they tackled an important issue. And the way they pulled the season’s storylines together reminded me of how a similarly seismic event tied together every event in the fourth season of an earlier series, one about a New Jersey mobster and his two families. (I think the two episodes are tremendous, but will throw to Paste’s Shannon Houston for the most persuasive piece I’ve read arguing the opposite point of view.)

On a surface level, Orange Is the New Black and The Sopranos have plenty in common. The critical reactions to both have followed remarkably similar trajectories (breakout praise followed by respectful love followed by mild backlash followed by a return to praise). Both shows follow the sorts of characters who haven’t previously been at the center of TV shows. And both series were created by TV vets anxious to shake up the system they worked in.

Perhaps the most obvious surface similarity is in how both series expanded the universe of where "good TV" could come from. Sopranos creator David Chase was able to ignore everything he knew about television because the series aired on HBO, which at that point was a network with little to lose and a desire to change the medium. Similarly, Jenji Kohan’s creative successes with Orange Is the New Black are tied intimately to the way the show is presented on Netflix, with every episode dropping at once.

Yes, Kohan is enough of a TV artisan to know how to create distinct, satisfying episodes. But she’s also used the expanded canvas of Netflix’s binge-viewing model to tell a dizzyingly complex story with dozens of major characters. It’s one of the few times the "TV as novel" comparisons (a descriptor that’s been rolled out to describe almost every serialized prestige drama since The Sopranos launched) have truly made sense to me.

And Orange Is the New Blacks impact when it comes to establishing Netflix as a major player is comparable to how The Sopranos established HBO. Both series were preceded by other acclaimed dramas on their respective networks — House of Cards in the case of Orange Is the New Black, and Oz in the case of The Sopranos — but they both quickly eclipsed those shows in terms of prestige and viewer fascination.

But Orange Is the New Black has also shaken up how TV tells stories

Orange Is the New Black
Orange Is the New Black’s diverse ensemble cast was a seismic shift in 2013.

The Sopranos’ biggest TV innovation was bringing the antihero front and center. It grew out of a world where most acclaimed dramas were workplace ensemble pieces, where there might be an antiheroic figure, but he was never the show’s entire center of gravity. The Sopranos and the shows it inspired pushed away from the ensemble toward the individual — often a white male with axes to grind and the kind of job that let him indulge his darker appetites.

We’ve been living mostly for better and sometimes for worse in the TV drama landscape built by that basic template. Yet even the biggest fans of the antihero drama would probably admit it’s feeling a little threadbare right now (see Matt Zoller Seitz for more on this topic). The best current example of the form — FX’s The Americans — is much more driven by relationship angst than bad guys doing bad things the audience can experience vicariously.

Orange Is the New Black has shaken up that antihero template in two important ways, one of which is immediately obvious and the other of which is less so. Ironically, it’s done so while being a show that is at least nominally about antiheroes (its protagonists are, after all, all in prison).

The obvious way it breaks with tradition is that it features very few white male characters, period; most of the white male characters it does have function as figureheads of a nameless, authoritarian system that turns everybody who works for it, no matter how well-meaning, into an extension of its brutality. (We’ll come back to this.)

Instead, the show has chosen to tell stories about a whole host of women, of many different races, across the entire spectrum of both sexuality and gender. And its most daring conceit has been to place every single one of those women at the center of the narrative at one point or another.

Yes, Orange Is the New Black is still nominally the story of Piper Chapman, an upper-class white woman who ends up in prison for something stupid she did in her 20s. But the show instantly grew so much richer when it looked beyond Piper — and both viewers and the TV industry noticed how much richer it grew.

It’s become almost standard in any article about Orange Is the New Black to mention that it broke new ground for TV diversity via all of the above. But just saying that ignores how unusual it felt in 2013 when the show debuted in a world still dominated by Sopranos knockoffs (including its own rough contemporary House of Cards), and how, in the years since, TV has thoroughly embraced the idea of better storytelling through diversity.

Shows as wildly divergent as Black-ish and Power and Fresh Off the Boat and Transparent (and I could go on) all debuted in the immediate wake of Orange Is the New Black excitement. Not all of them can be attributed to Orange’s existence and popularity, but its success almost certainly led executives to take more and more chances with what a protagonist of a TV show should or could look like.

But I would argue Orange Is the New Blacks greatest storytelling influence goes beyond even that.

Orange Is the New Black is at the forefront of the antihero drama’s antithesis: the empathy drama

Orange is the New Black lake escape
Any one of Orange Is the New Black’s dozens of characters could become the most important person in any given scene.

One of the big things that’s stood in the way of Orange Is the New Black being recognized as The Sopranos’ heir is the fact that, for a long time, nobody could figure out whether it was a drama or a comedy. In the show’s first season, Netflix even submitted it for Emmy recognition as a comedy, because competition was weaker in those categories, but it has been forced to compete in the drama categories ever since (thanks to a rule seemingly targeted specifically at Orange).

But to me, it’s always obviously been a drama. It might have lots of great jokes around the edges, but its core themes deal with systemic brutality and oppression, not anything more overtly optimistic or comedic. The show’s humor grows out of its characters’ bleak existence — sort of similar to how humor functioned as a panacea for existential despair on Mad Men.

But it’s also hard to classify Orange Is the New Black because it so radically upends a lot of notions of what we think of as a TV drama, period — via storytelling shifts that, as mentioned, aren’t always immediately obvious. Remember how The Sopranos pushed beyond ensemble drama to something more individualistic? Well, Orange does something similar in the opposite direction: It goes beyond the ensemble to try to depict an entire community of people. It’s similar, in that regard, to The Sopranos’ contemporaries The Wire and Deadwood, but its ambitions are often even larger.

Much of the anger over the final two episodes of Orange Is the New Black’s fourth season stemmed from the fact that the show wanted viewers to somehow empathize with someone who had done something incredibly awful. And while I intellectually understand this point of view and even agree with it somewhat, it’s not like it’s outside the show’s M.O. to take every character it has and try to make you walk in their shoes for an episode or two, no matter how despicable they are.

Healy, for example, is Orange Is the New Black’s most prominent warden character and a truly loathsome guy. The show wants you to find him loathsome, sure, but also to understand where that loathsomeness comes from, so that you might find common ground with him, as a few of the prisoners do in later seasons.

This is why I’ve often dubbed Orange the first "empathy drama" — by which I mean a series where the line between protagonist, audience identification figure, supporting character, and extra is almost completely obliterated.

A scene could revolve around anybody in it, no matter how seemingly "minor." Everybody’s story is rich and worth telling. And finding that common ground is essential. (I’ve written much more about this approach in relation to Mad Men, Rectify, and Halt and Catch Fire.)

The antihero drama tends to present characters who enter the antihero’s sphere as obstacles — people to either be won over or crushed. The empathy drama, however, presents every character in a scene as a co-protagonist. They might have conflict. They might even hate each other. But nobody is at the center of the story, because the story is about everyone.

TV has yet to fully internalize this lesson — though it’s slowly heading in that direction. And with every passing year, Orange Is the New Black looks a little less like a reaction to earlier shows and more like the start of a new movement entirely.

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