On July 11, 2013, everything changed. A sneak attack hit the world’s living rooms (and dorms, and laptops, and basements). It was midnight on a Thursday, and Netflix released Orange Is the New Black—all 13 episodes of it. At first, the reception was warm, gentle. But by the end of the following weekend, it was a hot topic of conversation. Television, one of the most established of cultural pastimes, was forever queered.
Not in the LGBTQ+ sense of that word, necessarily. Even though OITNB propelled lesbian storylines to prominence and gave trans actress Laverne Cox the platform to become a star (and eventual Time magazine cover subject), that was just the beginning. Netflix’s story about the women of Litchfield Penitentiary altered, in brilliant cutting increments, what TV could be, how people watched it. It wasn’t a workplace comedy, or a legal drama, or a redemption story—it was all of them. Folks “binge-watched” it rather than waiting for a new episodes to drop weekly.
It was also sneaky. When she launched the show, creator Jenji Kohan, who cut her teeth on series like Weeds and Gilmore Girls, called the lead, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), her Trojan Horse. “You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women and Latina women and old women and criminals,” she told NPR. “But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.”
As with the character, so with the show itself: Once it was inside the walls of the establishment, Kohan’s method ransacked everything.
Orange Is the New Black didn’t change TV single-handedly, of course. It had been evolving for some time. But the show’s success—near-universal critical acclaim mixed with solid viewership—proved that audiences would watch stories with a diverse array of characters, would watch whole seasons of shows in a single weekend. What’s queer about OITNB—and all the shows that followed its lead—isn’t just its cast; it’s the stories it told and the way it told them. Its central relationships weren’t built solely around nuclear families, or any particular character’s attempts to secure one; its story was told nonlinearly, through flashbacks and bottle episodes, in novel-like seasons. Like queerness itself, it taught people how to participate in culture in entirely new ways.
What happens in this queer new world? Well, seasons can be whatever length creators want; episodes can clock in at any length, too. Nudity is present for all bodies and no one is shamed. Older women can bone. All genders are welcome, but tropes aren’t—unless they’re being critiqued or re-contextualized. Teens can talk about sexuality without resorting to Porky’s behavior. Families take all shapes. The one-dimensional black friend (or Latinx coworker, or LGBTQ+ sidekick) is finally recognized as trite and relegated to the garbage. If you want to make one episode out of a 10-part arc black-and-white, you can. Throw in monsters and time-travel if you want. All things are possible. Just make it unique.
Network and premium cable TV had forebears here. HBO’s Oz and Sex and the City come to mind. So do Ryan Murphy’s early shows like Nip/Tuck and older hits like The L Word and Queer as Folk. Going into the decade, Golden Age of TV series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad—even, to varying degrees, comedies like 30 Rock, The Office, and Parks and Recreation—were also breaking the form. But as streaming services became the new cable, the appetite for new, addicting shows became almost insatiable. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, with their seemingly bottomless pocketbooks, needed to fill the catalog and, in order to do it, brought in a range of new voices. Netflix followed up OITNB with wild sci-fi like the Wachowskis’ Sense8, The OA, and Stranger Things and bizzarro animated series like Big Mouth and BoJack Horseman. Amazon focused an entire show on a female stand-up comic with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and turned a one-woman show into an Emmy-winning powerhouse with Fleabag. Hulu turned writer Lindy West’s memoir Shrill into a biting dramedy and Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale into an engrossing watercooler show. None of these programs looked a thing like ER or Cheers, yet they became collective obsessions. They were messy, nontraditional, funny, a little broken—and not in the usual “difficult men” ways. They were us.
As the decade progressed, the wonderful weirdness only increased. Hulu produced oddball comedies like Difficult People. Netflix produced fun, but informed, horny content like Sex Education and Bonding, and picked up more mind-bending sci-fi like Dark and Black Mirror (then made an interactive episode, just to totally twist TV). Amazon began producing Good Omens. The list goes on.