The Netflix we know today is quite different from when it started. Of course, the platform that, starting this fall, will solely be streaming, was once a service that only delivered DVDs to your mailbox (something that Gen Alphas probably can't even fathom). But when Netflix first made the transition to streaming in the early 2010s, they broke new ground with their original programming. Of course, some of their original shows have been mostly forgotten (Bad Samaritans) or their denouements are shrouded in controversy (House of Cards). But early on, one series made Netflix a household name, and it would become the standard that future series on the platform would strive towards: Orange Is the New Black. Now, ten years after Orange Is the New Black (often shortened to OITNB) premiered on July 11, 2013, it's hard not to look back on the OG binge-watch and consider how it changed the way we consume TV forever.
My First-Ever Binge-Watch, ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ Arrived 10 Years Ago—and It Changed TV Forever
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In case you somehow missed this cultural event, OITNB is a comedy/drama series based on Piper Kerman's memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison. Similar to the memoir, the series is inspired by Kerman's time in a federal women's prison, a sentence she served for 13 months after she smuggled drug money for her then-girlfriend in the early ’90s.
At the time of its release, OITNB received acclaim from television critics and its first season received a whopping twelve Emmy Award nominations (winning three). Meanwhile, it is currently tied with Grace and Frankie as the longest-running Netflix series ever, with both shows getting seven season treatments (however, Grace and Frankie ended with three more episodes than OITNB). But this isn't the only way in which the series solidified its place in TV history.
Part of the reason Orange Is the New Black was so memorable was that it hit Netflix right at a time when smartphones were becoming universal and watching TV from apps was becoming more common. I still remember clicking “play” on the first episode of OITNB late one night in my bed, completely unaware of what I was getting myself into.
Flash forward hours later and I was four episodes in, bleary-eyed and barely conscious, with a sore thumb and pointer finger. But this wasn't like when TBS ran commercial-filled marathons of Friends or I brought out my box set of Arrested Development. This was a brand-new series right at my fingertips, and I could watch a whole new season all at once, anywhere I wanted. My first true binge-watch had just occurred and I hadn't even realized it. (Netflix viewers around the world undoubtedly experienced the same phenomenon without a second thought.)
Of course, now we talk about the “TV series binge” ad nauseam and some platforms are even moving away from the model. HBO (and their streaming platform, Max) have stuck with their weekly releases all along. Meanwhile, platforms like Apple TV+ and Peacock have taken to releasing their shows on a weekly format too.
And while I personally prefer the weekly release, there is still a thrill to the binge, and it's certainly not hurting Netflix. The platform continues to have a number of the biggest streaming series in the world, from Bridgerton and Stranger Things to Wednesday and You. However, none of these shows would've worked without OITNB breaking the old TV mold. (One can't help but wonder how fast streaming would've progressed had the Netflix series been a massive flop.)
And beyond its groundbreaking status, it's easy to see how I got sucked into bingeing OITNB—for starters, each episode ended with a cliffhanger. Think of your favorite shows from channels like Freeform (formerly ABC Family) and The CW. Pretty Little Liars and The Vampire Diaries kept fans tuning in each week because they wanted to see what happened after the previous episode's bombshell ending.
OITNB offered similarly juicy storytelling amongst a package of episodes waiting to be watched from your pocket. But even more, it provided something channels like Freeform could not: explicit content.
Like cable networks, Netflix could push the limits of TV, and boy did OITNB do that. The series was overflowing with language, violence, nudity and sexual content (something that, as a teenager, I was obviously drawn to). Yet, it also pushed new boundaries for diverse storytelling. Not only was its main character a bisexual and its cast filled with incredible POC stars, but the series also introduced the world to Laverne Cox, who would become the first transgender actress to receive a Primetime Emmy nom for acting, thanks to her role as Sophia Burset on the series.
These days, it's almost hard for me to picture TV before Orange Is the New Black. And perhaps now, as Netflix releases hundreds of new titles every year (many of which are not exactly winners) and cracks down on password sharing among families and friends, it could learn a thing or two from its early model. Orange Is the New Black is made with heart and designed to be binged—and shared. One thing's for certain: Whenever I put it on, there is no need for Netflix to prompt me with that message, “Are you still watching?” Of course I am.
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