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5 things that set Netflix hit 'Orange is the New Black' apart

There's a devastating scene in the first season of Orange is the New Black in which protagonist Piper Chapman's (Taylor Schilling) ex-fiance reveals on a radio broadcast her not-so-nice thoughts about her fellow inmates at a women's prison in New York. • These are shallow, first-day impressions informed by Chapman's former life as a Brooklyn yuppie, ones that we already know are far from the truth. No one can so easily be reduced to a stereotype. • Neither can OITNB.

The Netflix original series doesn't necessarily have the makings of a hit: It's one of only a handful of shows the streaming site has ever produced, plus its cast is predominantly women and minorities, certainly not the standard on TV. And for goodness sake, it's set in a prison.

And yet the show dominated the cultural and critical conversation when it debuted last summer. (Netflix doesn't release ratings, but did say last year that OITNB is the service's most-watched original series ever.) As all 13 episodes of the second season drop Friday, here are five things that set OITNB apart:

LEADING LADIES: Creator Jenji Kohan (who adapted the show from Piper Kerman's memoir) knows a thing or two about writing strong female characters. Her Showtime show Weeds broke ground in 2005 by focusing on a female anti-hero, a drug-dealing mom played by Mary Louise-Parker. What is surprising (and delightfully so) is the number and variety of strong women that populate Litchfield Penitentiary: a feisty Hispanic mother-daughter duo, a strict older Haitian woman, a harsh Russian cook, a drug addict-turned-devout Christian, a no-nonsense lesbian and (no exaggeration) dozens more.

It has a lot to say: OITNB expertly combines pitch black comedy with real tragedy, and it isn't afraid to lean into either. Things as silly as how prison guard John Bennett lost his leg (infection from a dirty hot tub in Florida, natch) and as devastating as Tricia overdosing in a utility closet both help create an often painfully poignant portrait of these characters' lives — in the prison and outside of it. And OITNB isn't judgmental about any of it. Where some shows would villainize drug dealers or addicts, this one is quick to point out that everyone does things they're not proud of. In one episode from the first season, Red uses her power as head of the kitchen staff to starve Piper for offending her, while pre-prison flashbacks show Piper and her fiance having a hard time making it through a juice cleanse. OITNB isn't afraid to suggest Piper might be the more deplorable person here.

Transgender awareness: One of the cast's most striking characters is Sophia, a transgender character played by the divine Laverne Cox, herself a transgender actor. Cox, who recently became the first transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine, plays someone who's rarely seen on television and in movies, and OITNB wisely treats her like it would any other character. That Sophia gets a fleshed out storyline (complete with flashbacks to her time as a man, featuring Cox's real life twin brother) is groundbreaking.

The Netflix influence: Being a Netflix show gives OITNB a unique freeness. For one thing, there doesn't seem to be any subject matter that's off-limits (let's just say it isn't a good idea to watch OITNB with your mother). Plus, there's that large diverse cast, something we haven't seen in this capacity since HBO's The Wire in the early 2000s. Another show on a more traditional platform, one that would bring the pressure of ratings, would have demanded more traditional roles.

Awesome cast: Aside from That '70s Show's Laura Prepon and American Pie's Jason Biggs, most of the show's cast was unknown before signing on. They wouldn't remain that way for long. Schilling in particular is wonderful as Piper, imbuing her with a vibrancy that slowly curdles. There are at least 20 regular characters on OITNB, and each of them could carry her own show. Some of that comes from the writing, which makes us care about every inmate. Most of it, though, is because of the actors, people like Broadway star Uzo Aduba, who steals scene after scene as Suzanne 'Crazy Eyes' Warren; or show biz vet Kate Mulgrew, who lets us see the tiny cracks of vulnerability in Red's tough exterior.

Michelle Stark can be reached at mstark@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @mstark17.

5 things that set Netflix hit 'Orange is the New Black' apart 06/04/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2014 12:00pm]

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