Friday, July 26, 2013

Netflix is the new HBO? Maybe.

Netflix seems to be on to something with its original content productions. Earlier this year, we were addicted to their very fine show House of Cards. And it wasn't just us. The folks who nominate shows for Emmys liked it, too. When the nominations were announced, House of Cards was right up there with the big guys like Mad Men and Game of Thrones.

Now Netflix has given us another new quality series in Orange is the New Black, a story about a privileged white girl, a Smith graduate named Piper Chapman, who gets sentenced to 15 months at Litchfield women's correctional institute almost ten years after a youthful indiscretion with a heroin importer named Alex who was her girlfriend. Piper had once transported a large quantity of drug money for her lover and long after she has put all of that, including her lesbian experimentation, behind her, she's busted and sent to prison. It turns out that Alex is serving her time in the same prison.

There are dozens of inmates at Litchfield and we get to know many of their names and stories. They are all races, all ages, and all stations in life. Litchfield is a great leveler. We meet crazy Jesus freaks, a transgendered former New York fireman now female hairdresser, ex-junkies, a fierce Russian cook, a mother-daughter duo, even a nun, and so many more. At first they all seem like caricatures, stereotypes of the most blatant kind, but over several episodes, we get to know them and their back stories and they become fully realized human beings worthy of our sympathy and respect. We learn to care about these uproarious, diverse, distinctive women.

This is a "dramedy," a hybrid of comedy and drama, and it has moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. Other moments are so poignant that I sometimes find myself tearing up. What truly captivates me is the respect that the show gives the inmates. They are never treated in a condescending or phony politically correct way. Their stories are real and are told with all the warts showing but with real affection for the characters.

Moreover, this is a series that proves that you don't need a macho-man vibe to carry a show and make it interesting. The only "macho-man" here is a prison guard referred to as Pornstache who is a jerk. He's also pure evil. I'm currently on episode 10 and I'm hoping that by the end of the final episode, number 13, he'll get what's coming to him.

No, the female dynamics, be they maternal, romantic, familial or tribal, are more than enough to build a strong show around, a show that will keep us interested and provide enough viewers to justify a second season, which I understand Netflix has just authorized.

I also like the fact that Netflix streams these shows so that we can watch them on our own schedule. If you want to binge watch the whole series on one day, you can do that. We've spread this one out over several days, watching one episode each night, and I find myself looking forward to that hour at the end of the day.

As I said, I think Netflix is on to something here and if they continue producing such interesting shows, we may indeed find that Netflix has become the new HBO, producer of innovative television for which the viewers clamor.

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