Is there a scientific reason why we love 'Orange Is the New Black'?
With Season 5 now streaming, we tracked down an expert to find out what makes a great TV show.
Last season of "Orange is the New Black" ended with (spoiler alert!) the death of a major character and a riot about to break out in the prison. Season 5, which is now available to stream on Netflix, picks up in the aftermath of those incidents.
The show has become Netflix's most-watched original series and has won so many Emmys that the rules for the awards were actually changed. Not to mention it's received six Golden Globe nominations, six Writers Guild of America nominations, a Producers Guild of America award, an American Film Institute award, and a Peabody Award.
With all these accolades, we wanted to know: Is there a secret sauce that makes a particular TV show successful? Sure, it might depend on the actors, the time slot, the marketing push and so on. But is there something deeper, perhaps a more scientific approach to why we enjoy watching certain shows more than others?
It's not just television network executives who are studying this; social scientists are as well. For example, Professor Jonathan Cohen of the University of Haifa in Israel studies our psychological attachment to television characters. Dubbed para-social relationships, these ties can happen across genres – from a lead actor in a drama to the wacky neighbor in the sitcom. (Admit it, you always wanted Kramer from "Seinfeld" to come over for dinner.)
So we decided to check with Cohen to get his thoughts on why we're attracted to some of the most popular shows on TV.
"Three factors are known to increase enjoyment of TV dramas," he told From The Grapevine. "The first is that a program have a story line, or multiple story lines, that are suspenseful and absorbing so that viewers are transported into the story world." The popular "Game of Thrones" would serve as the perfect case study for this. Indeed, with its vast array of characters across various realms, the show is a complex narrative that has viewers hooked.
"Second," Cohen continued, "the main characters need to be relatable so that they induce a desire to identify with them." Think of the mom and dad on the Emmy-nominated "Modern Family." As another example, Cohen conducted research on the popular sitcom "Friends" and discovered that viewers felt the closest connection to Jennifer Aniston's Rachel character.
Finally, Cohen points out, a successful show should seem realistic. "This doesn't mean that it seem real, but that the sequence of events seems like it could potentially happen." Netflix's "Orange is the New Black" would fit into this category. Most of us can't relate to being in a women's prison in upstate New York, but we can certainly relate to the individual characters and their own personal experiences.
For fans of some shows, realism is not as important. "I think there's still this stigma in award show circles that fantasy and science fiction are somehow lesser than realistic dramas," Arienne Frechaud, a "Game of Thrones" fan and graduate student at Penn State University, told From The Grapevine. "I love 'Game of Thrones' because of the greater sense of uncertainty. You can't always tell what's going to happen. The good guys don't always win, but neither do the bad guys. It gives it a greater weight than a lot of other shows, and I really love that."
Professor Cohen says one of his favorite shows of the past few years is "Masters of Sex," which is based on a true story. The Showtime drama stars actors Michael Sheen and Lindsay Caplan as real-life sex researchers Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, pioneers in the field. "It's just a well-designed story, good acting and motivations that seem realistic," he said.
And do you know what else is realistic? With the weekend ahead of us, we've got plenty of time to binge on the new season of "Orange is the New Black."
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