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Celebrating the bold ambition of Orange Is the New Black, already a relic of TV’s past

At first, Netflix’s signature drama was an example of TV’s future. They already don’t make ’em like they used to.

Two characters in the TV show “Orange Is the New Black,” Taystee and Daya, wear prison uniforms and talk to one another.
Orange Is the New Black broke new ground for TV diversity.
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.

2019 has already seen several long-running TV shows come to an end, with more series finales on the way. From Game of Thrones to The Big Bang Theory to Veep to Homeland (whose upcoming eighth season will be its last), lots of shows that defined their networks and TV in the 2010s are closing up shop and turning out the lights.

The critical writing and online discussion surrounding these shows inevitably talks about their endings as “the end of an era” or something similar. TV won’t ever be the same without them. Fans will have to find some new excitement. Etc., etc., etc.

But if you really want to find a TV series finale that designates the “end of an era,” you won’t find it in Westeros or Sheldon Cooper’s apartment. Instead, you’ll find it in the halls of Litchfield Prison on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, which ends with the launch of its (very good) seventh and final season on Friday, July 26.

On one very obvious level, Orange Is the New Black ran for seven seasons and became an early signature hit for Netflix, the streaming platform that has legitimately changed television forever. Throughout its run, the show remained mostly high-quality (in contrast to House of Cards, which slowly deflated and then catastrophically combusted), and that helped keep it in the public eye, even as it got older and lost its buzziness.

It now stands as Netflix’s longest-running scripted original in both number of seasons and number of episodes. Only BoJack Horseman (which is coming up on its sixth season) seems likely to pass it in the near future. So it’s indisputable that Orange Is the New Black is an important series in the development of Netflix, which in turn has been very important in the development of TV as a whole.

But I would argue that it’s even more than that. Indeed, its conclusion marks the end of a whole era of TV storytelling.

Orange Is the New Black was part of a trend toward bigger, more sprawling TV dramas. But TV dramas increasingly push toward being smaller and smaller.

Nicky and Red take a ride in the prison van.
Nicky and Red get ready to say goodbye.
Cara Howe for Netflix

I’ve been thinking about Orange Is the New Black’s place in TV history for a while now. In 2016, I argued that it was the most influential drama since The Sopranos, thanks to its status as one of the first major streaming shows, its embrace of diversity, and its enormous sense of empathy for everybody within its universe.

I still think the way the show helped kickstart those trends — most of which later spread across the TV programming grid — cements its legacy as a huge innovator. But as I watched Orange Is the New Black’s final season, which has the typically epic sweep and tremendous ambition (and, okay, hit-and-miss execution) that have defined the show at its best and its worst, I realized that it also heralds the end of a storytelling trend, one whose roots stretch all the way back to the early 1980s.

Since the debut of the cop drama Hill Street Blues on NBC in 1981, TV dramas have pushed more and more in the direction of trying to use the form of the TV show to tell a story that starts small and expands in ways that eventually encompass as much of human life as they are capable of holding. Hill Street Blues, for instance, came to use the police precinct it was set in to tell a story about the entire neighborhood surrounding that precinct.

Dramas’ ambitions only grew from there. The 2002-2008 HBO series The Wire also started as a cop show, but gradually came to use an entire city as its storytelling canvas. The 2004-2006 HBO series Deadwood (whose wrap-up movie just aired in May 2019) turned a single small town into a microcosm of America as a whole. With a gradual build-up and a careful cultivation of storylines, a TV show that started out as one simple story could come to tell many, many others.

A major pushback against this trend came in the form of AMC’s 2008-2013 series Breaking Bad. While the show is often slotted alongside The Wire and Deadwood and many other series as part of the Golden Age of Television, it was very different from those two HBO examples (and from The Sopranos) for the way it eventually filtered every single story through its protagonist. Breaking Bad’s world existed to serve Walter White. If something in that world wasn’t important to him, then as far as the show was concerned, it might as well not have existed.

To be clear, there was nothing wrong with Breaking Bad’s approach. It was just different from the “working to better simulate a fictional world” approach of other prestige dramas of its era. And if you look at big-name dramas that have debuted in the 2010s, many have paid lip service to the idea of having a large, intricate world beyond their protagonists, but few have followed through on this promise. Indeed, many of the biggest criticisms of the final season of Game of Thrones boil down to the idea that it no longer seemed to occupy a living world, that its characters were operating in a rapidly emptying landscape.

Which brings us back to Orange Is the New Black.

Orange Is the New Black might have been the ultimate expression of the “show about everything and everyone” trend

Taylor Schilling stars in Orange Is the New Black
Piper started out as the show’s protagonist. In time, she became just another character.

It’s easy to forget that when Orange Is the New Black launched in 2013, its first episode was almost entirely about Piper Chapman’s first day in prison. Piper’s status as an upper-class, privileged white lady meant that going to prison was precisely the sort of thing she likely wouldn’t have predicted would happen to her, if not for a brief spate of drug-running earlier in her life that had finally caught up to her as the series began.

On a protagonist-centered show, Piper’s journey likely would have dominated all seven seasons. We would have seen her acclimating to prison life or even thriving in it. We would have watched her evolution from chipper, naive woman to hardened prison veteran. And sure, we saw some of that story whenever the show turned its lens in her direction. Piper got used to being in prison and learned to better navigate it, and she became a different person from the experience.

But Orange Is the New Black wanted to use one upper-class white lady as its window into the prison industrial complex. It quickly opened up its world to welcome women of color, trans women, and women of all sexualities and sizes. It was warm and funny but also incredibly clear-eyed about how structural inequalities in American society meant that Piper landing in Litchfield prison was a fluke, while the prison profited off of other inmates who were either there for decades or in and out, over and over again.

With each successive season, the show opened up more and more, trying to depict a widening swath of American society and, eventually, the world itself. The final season deals with immigration issues in the US, and in so doing, it confronts the kinds of issues that might drive people from around the world to try to enter the US illegally; watching it, I was struck, again and again, by how Orange Is the New Black started as the story of one woman and eventually became a show with so many regular and recurring characters that it could never hope to conclude all of their stories in one 13-episode season of television.

TV shows simply don’t have this kid of ambition any more. As episode orders shrink from 13 episodes per season to 10 to eight (or fewer!) and as dramas increasingly tend toward smaller stories told over single seasons rather than bigger, more sprawling stories told over many seasons, they no longer have the time or space to match Orange Is the New Black’s level of world-building and scope.

Orange Is the New Black wasn’t perfect. The show suffered through occasional messy periods, as with its fifth season, which took place over a three-day prison riot and struggled to maintain focus because it was trying to account for a huge, unruly cast of characters in a very short timespan. It too often treated the trauma of its characters of color as story fodder designed to educate its well-meaning white viewers about The Way Things Are, and it never quite found a way to blend all of its selves together.

But I think I’m going to miss it more than any other show that’s ending this year, because there simply isn’t anything else like it on the air. There is nothing wrong with a tiny, perfectly crafted show. But the more that TV dramas veer in this more restrained direction, the less they are able to capture as much of human life as Orange Is the New Black dared to depict.

TV’s chief storytelling asset is sprawl. It takes place across years and years, across dozens or even hundreds of episodes. And at its best, it uses all that space not just to tell new stories but to build new worlds, to see prison walls not as a limitation, but as a gift.

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