It was an absurd group of people. We all sat at three long community tables (the kind you’d see at Hogwarts), plates heaped with treats for every taste — some coconut-covered snowballs, some waffle fries, and a lot of orange-colored buffalo chicken wings. There was chatter, craft beers, a distinct smell of something fried and hopeful in the air. Invariably, most of us were spectacled, twentysomething, coming from the office, attached to a smartphone, and in a constant state of leaning over to shake the hand of “Have you met…?” In a few moments we would all quiet down our enthusiastic, booze-aided hum and watch a 50-minute-long show about the deprivation, community, and injustice of the American prison system. And we would like it. No, we’d really like it.
That’s the curiosity of the loyal, viral fandom behind Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. It’s not a show about inherently “fun” stuff — solitary confinement, prison-induced starvation, the dissolution of identity, intergang politics. The plotting is addictive, but not easily digestible. The characters are relatable, but still condemnable. And yet, Netflix’s dark horse has become its most successful original series yet. It was enough to pack Tumblr headquarters with hundreds of ecstatic fans ready to watch the premiere last week, and it’s enough to win sweeping media attention (Laverne Cox, one of the show’s favorite stars, recently got a landmark Time magazine cover.)
Netflix’s own unique distribution model, releasing all 13 episodes in one go for the most bingeable experience, has also created an entirely new kind of insta-fame for the cast. Their faces have been adapted into cutesy caricatures by Tumblr artists. Their Instagram and Twitter accounts have garnered a strong allegiance of fans who communicate with the stars as if they were old friends. Samira Wiley, who plays the lovable inmate Poussey Washington, explains at the screener that the Netflix model puts a lot of power into the fans’ hands. “I mean, who am I to comment on the marketing business plan of Netflix? Obviously it works,” chimes in the brash Lea DeLaria, who plays Big Boo — yes, the character who did that thing with the screwdriver. “It’s proven to be incredibly successful. Successful television equals instantaneous fame worldwide. One day I was going to do my laundry around the corner on Knickerbocker, I live in Bushwick. [sings] ‘I live in the Ghetto.’ But I’m going to do my laundry on Knickerbocker on Thursday and the show comes and then on Saturday I’m walking down the street to go grocery shopping and some chick runs out of the ACE Hardware on the corner of my street and starts screaming ‘Big Boo!’ and asking me to sign a screwdriver.”
But, as has been pointed out before, whether Orange is the New Black really is a runaway hit is still up for debate — Netflix isn’t rated by Nielsen and executives have refused to release any viewership data apart from the estimated 44 million subscribers it garnered by the end of 2013. Though, Netflix shows are just as capable as network shows of winning Emmys, critical acclaim, and estimates say that OITNB most likely gets about 4 million viewers, a million fewer than Game of Thrones. If you took a look at Twitter, you’d think there were billions.
It’s something DeLaria describes as the third “feeding frenzy” of her career (the first being her stand up set as the first openly gay comic on Arsenio Hall in 1993). Matt McGorry, who plays the dreamy Correctional Officer John Bennett, believes that part of the show’s success, the source of that feeding frenzy, is the anonymity of the majority of the ensemble. For McGorry, landing his break-out role on OITNB wasn’t as much a struggle as serendipity. “I’d be an asshole to talk about the struggle, and be under 30 and be on a fucking great show. There are a lot of people who work hard their entire lives and don’t have the opportunity to be on such a great show. But, we all started from a similar place, I played my fair share of EMTs and cops and by that I mean that was my name, the three-line roles and the five-line roles. I think we were just sort of in the right place at the right time and I credit our casting director Jen Euston for not just looking where the low hanging fruit was, but looking all over.”
Showleader Jenji Kohan is known for bringing visibility to marginalized groups with her shows — Weeds featured a diverse cast in recurring non-Botwin roles and OITNB further caters to that sense of honesty and realness. DeLaria notes, “My favorite thing about being on this show is actually portraying an intelligent, funny, three-dimensional butch on television because normally they’re like drunk truck drivers fighting over a pool game. I can get that at any dyke bar. I don’t have to see it on TV.” With more diverse casting, the rabid consumption of streaming TV, comes instant fan identification. People suddenly become “Pipers,” “Alexes,” and “Nickys.” Jokes about wearing menstrual pads as shower shoes become commonplace.
Wiley says, “I love the social media aspect of it. Coming from the theater background, I sometimes miss the one-on-one connection that you have with the audience. You’re in there. It’s only one night on Thursday, May 16th. Having someone stop you on the street, or connecting with someone on Twitter, I feel like it’s bridging that gap somehow for me and bringing me back to why I wanted to do this in the first place.”
DeLaria brazenly admits that same bridged gap between her and her fans has allowed for some interesting, R-rated encounters. “Well you know Instagram? You can send personal pictures now. [Laughs] I like that a lot. I totally love that.” McGorry agrees with his castmates. “I enjoy the social media as well. My Instagram settings are private in terms of direct messages. Maybe I should change that…” he says. “You really should,” DeLaria teases him.
It’s hard not to note the palpable chemistry between DeLaria, Wiley, and McGorry themselves.This type of close-knit ensemble cast, where a lot of the key players share scenes, also comes with a sense of genuine camaraderie. While other casts (ahem, Sex and the City) have tried to convince us that they are “best friends,” the Orange is the New Black cast reeks of a certain authenticity that bodes well to play their down-and-out characters who develop a community in unlikely circumstances. In fact, the worst part of the Season Two premiere — and I won’t share much of the plot — was the lack of ensemble and the hyper focalization on Piper herself. That’s because the ensemble cast is the honestly best part of Orange is the New Black, and it’s because of how goddamn good some of the auxiliary characters are crafted. DeLaria’s character Big Boo was, in fact, practically written for DeLaria after she nailed the audition, but not for the right part. “The character Big Boo wasn’t really anything, it was a small part that they cast me in and kind of wrote for me,” she explains. “So when I say ‘I am Big Boo,’ I fucking am Big Boo…But yeah, any words that they say just come out so naturally, because I would fuckin’ say any of that shit in a second.” Wiley, on the other hand, read the part for Poussey and said, “Man I know that person.”
Orange is the New Black seems set to build more and more ardor with each coming season, and part of that comes from good writing, part of it comes from amazing acting, but another large part of it comes from the way we’ve been delivered the material in one big easy-to-swallow-with-your-Cheetos gulp. And it will continue to ramp up its following, honing in on middle audiences apart from the chicken wing-touting, glasses-donning media set. A significant part of that seems borne out of the cast’s genuine interest in participating in such a unique, almost DIY show, and let’s face it, their genuine interest in participating with each other and with us. Like McGorry admits, “Not five minutes ago we were getting drunk and eating snacks in the back room. Five minutes ago! We’re still drunk!”