'Orange is the New Black' Season 7 is a good time to reflect on how mourning the end of TV shows has changed

Are we still hooked on programs from years past because we can't say goodbye to anything in this age of online immortality and on-demand everything?
A scene from Season 7 of "Orange is the New Black."
A scene from Season 7 of "Orange is the New Black."JoJo Whilden / Netflix
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By Christina Tucker

With the final season of “Orange is the New Black” released Friday, it feels only right to reflect on the Netflix show that helped change the television landscape. “Orange” wasn’t the first Netflix original to grace our laptop screens (that honor belongs to “House of Cards,” which was released on the service a few months earlier), but it was the first one that looked and felt wildly different than the dramas that at the time made up prestige TV. Here, seasons could be as long or short as they needed to be. Episodes could run for over an hour or well under it. Remember how long the theme song was? The “skip intro” button was basically invented so we could avoid OITNB’s theme. You’ve got tiiiiiiiiiiiiiime.

If you watch a TV show no one is talking about, did you watch anything at all?

Long intro aside, “Orange” was lauded for much more than shifting the way viewers watched TV. The show’s original concept — about a wealthy, privileged white woman who gets sent to prison — was used to introduce us to more interesting, more marginalized women whose stories we hadn’t seen. “Orange” had its issues, of course. I am not convinced it needed seven seasons, and I never got over the major death in Season 4. Nevertheless, it was a show that affected how we think about television and how we watch it. That it’s ending makes me think about how the way we mourn TV shows has also changed — and what we owe “Orange” for that, too.

Before the era of streaming on Netflix and assorted other services, when a TV series wrapped up, it was, well, over. Sure you could hope that some cable channel in your subscription package would pick it up and air the reruns on some random and inconvenient schedule. A really successful show might make its way to the Blockbuster aisles. Basically, though, you shed a couple tears, made a last few wry observations at the water cooler, and moved on.

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But now, despite the inundation of new shows and constant conversation about them (keeping up with the most zeitgeisty program can feel like homework because we need to make sure we’re part of the conversation about it), we are also refusing to let things go. Recall the uproar that occurred when Netflix announced it would no longer stream “The Office” and “Friends,” not tomorrow or next month, but in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

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One would expect that we’d be too busy enjoying the television of right now to mourn the loss of shows that came out decades past. So are we all still mainlining programs that came out years ago because we don’t know how to say goodbye to anything? Has on-demand viewing — any show we want, any time we want it, no need to suffer the interminable passage of a week before getting the answer to the “will they or won’t they” cliffhanger — made the lack of instant access to any given content intolerable? Does the infinite internet, which makes every moment of our lives eternal and forever searchable on social media, mean that we have lost the ability to move on? Or is it simply the comfort these shows provide in these unsteady times that keeps us coming back for more?

The first thing I did when the second, perfect season of “Fleabag” ended was to immediately start it again. I did the same thing after finishing “Russian Doll,” and if my memory serves, I only stopped rewatching “The West Wing” because my roommate at the time staged an intervention. I know some people (well, one incredibly deviant person) who haven’t watched the final season of “Parks and Recreation” yet because they aren’t ready to let go of it. Honestly, looking at the world today, who could blame us for filling up on the leftovers of the pop culture comfort food we know and love well?

Not to mention the fact that now that everyone has a social media megaphone and access to a crowdfunding site, we feel entitled to say when — and if — something ends at all. “Big Little Lies” came back roaring hot after its stellar first season for no real reason other than it was beloved by viewers, including Meryl Streep, who was enticed to join the cast. Even though the “Veronica Mars” Kickstarter-funded film was considered a miss by just about everyone, the show was beloved enough to get a new season on Hulu (one that has been swooned over by critics and viewers alike). “Gossip Girl” ended in 2012 and just a scant seven years later, the HBO reboot has been announced.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t still shows that wrap up, and that spark an outpouring of grief — via days of media coverage — in doing so. It’s just the way that processing that grief works is different, too. Here, I’d be remiss to not mention HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” the last juggernaut of “appointment television.” The wall-to-wall coverage, however, was not focused as much on how we’ll miss the show as what it means that the limitless options on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu — much of their original content commissioned off the success of “House of Cards” and OITNB — means we might not have another reason to come together to watch something all at once again.

Ironically, my reaction upon learning that this season of “Orange” would be its last was not to feel the need to mourn, nor did I feel inclined to go back and revisit the seasons I missed. Mostly, I felt … nothing. It was akin to running across the name of a person you hadn’t heard from in a while, someone toward whom you bore no ill will — you had just lost touch because that’s how life is sometimes. I don’t think I’ll mourn the end of “Orange” the way I will the end of “Schitt’s Creek” or “Jane the Virgin.”But why?

The answer, I think, is in another part of the shift in how we consume TV. I can’t ignore the fact that what people are talking about and writing about and podcasting about now influences my emotions toward and enthusiasm for a series. “Orange” hasn’t hit the zeitgeist spot in a few years, I don’t know a ton of people who watch it anymore, and thus my interest in keeping up with it has waned. What’s the fun of being caught up on a show if there’s no one to talk about it with? We process our feelings about TV online, tweeting at all hours of the day and reading through recaps and longform criticism. If you watch a TV show no one is talking about, did you watch anything at all?

The first season of "Orange is the New Black."Eric Leibowitz / Netflix

The ending of “Orange” means something different than the start of the traditional bereavement period for a program whose characters and storylines are departing the scene. It’s less about mourning the end of a beloved show than creating space to think about the kind of show it was.

OITNB changed the landscape of television not just because it was dropped all at once for us to gobble up, but because it showed us stories of people television so often ignores. Cis women, trans women, queer women, women of color — “Orange” provided a place for viewers to find these people, to see their flaws and recognize their triumphs. “Orange is the New Black” was the Trojan horse television needed to believe that these stories matter, that they have intrinsic worth. And more cynically, it showed there was an audience for these stories, consumers who were excited to see these kinds of characters. In that way, perhaps its ending isn’t something to mourn at all, but something to celebrate.