After two groundbreaking, ecstatically praised, progressively weird and exciting and genre-bending seasons, Orange Is the New Black is beginning its third season by making its boldest creative move yet: becoming kind of normal.
We’re further into Piper Chapman’s prison sentence now, and in the third evolutionary stage of a series that has become among television’s best and most daring.
We’re far beyond the days of Season 1, when Taylor Schilling’s wide, shifting eyes, capable of conveying 10 emotions in half as many seconds, were our window into the complicated world of Litchfield Prison. Privileged, perhaps spoiled, and, frankly, white, Piper was the kind of girl who, as a generalization, was never supposed to be in a place like that.
It was the classic fish out of water story, and, as proverbial fellow fish, we followed her as she dealt with her unlikely circumstances through her very sheltered, very myopic, and, ultimately, very annoying worldview.
As we got to know the beautiful, flawed, endearing people Piper would encounter, people far more settled into prison life than she, we began to loathe Piper and root for her adversaries: the deliciously domineering Red (Kate Mulgrew), the heartbreakingly misunderstood Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), or the almost indescribable Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning).
The more we wanted to smack Piper on the side of her head, the more we fell in love with those inmates who, through her eyes, we found so terrifying and unrelatable at the beginning. It was a brilliant bait-and-switch.
Then came Season 2, which took narrative steps that were indisputably logical according to real-life circumstances, but astonishingly ballsy as a television endeavor. As Piper became more accustomed to prison life and therefore more of a kindred spirit with the women she was incarcerated with, she became, really, just another inmate.
An award-winning TV show followed up its hit first season by shaking things up entirely. Its lead became just another supporting character.
A “Big Bad,” if you will, was introduced to anchor the season’s narrative (Lorraine Toussaint’s terrifying Vee), and the show’s secondary cast members stepped into the spotlight, using the lack of focus on Piper’s past to expand on their own.
The sensational episodes that turn of events produced—how jaw-dropping and spectacular was Yael Stone in Morello’s big episode, for example, or unexpected was the Bonnie and Clyde showcase for the Barbara Rosenblat’s ailing Rosa?—laid the groundwork for what the show has become in this, its confident and sharp-as-ever third season.
Orange Is the New Black, a series that has been TV’s most creatively undefinable and experimental show, is now the highest quality example of its most pedestrian format: the procedural.
The traditional case-of-the-week structure so often employed by the Law and Orders and CSIs of the world now finds its quirky stepsister in Orange Is the New Black, which has turned “Whose Backstory Is Next?” into its own exciting and rewarding narrative gimmick.
Whereas previous seasons have had Piper’s settling into prison and Vee’s reign of terror as through lines to hold the string of episodes together, Season 3 is missing an arc that’s as blatant in its function as narrative glue.
There’s the impending birth of Daya’s (Dascha Polanco) child and an intriguing custody debate introduced by the arrival of Mary Steenburgen as “Pornstache’s” mother. A particularly gutting, and ultimately dooming drug scheme by Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne) pays off more fleetingly than you might expect, and the ever-tumultuous romance between Piper and Alex (Laura Prepon), who returns to Litchfield this season, bubbles throughout the episodes.
Also missing is the darkness and scariness that made OITNB’s first two seasons so arresting and irresistibly bingeable. But that seems to be a pointed creative decision.
This season is more concerned with continuing to make its way through the lives of the women who occupy Litchfield Prison, and, with a few misses here and there, is so lived-in in its narrative voice and settled in its “Backstory of the Week” format that you’re quickly at peace and on board with the season’s new direction and slightly more upbeat tone.
Still, when a show is this good for three consecutive seasons—which doesn’t sound like it should be a feat, but in this day and age truly is—you start to become skeptical and suspicious about each newly introduced plot point. This, you think, will be the one that breaks the streak, that ruins the show.
That inkling tingles a few times in the early episodes of Season 3.
It happens when Crazy Eyes delusionally refuses to believe that her mother figure Vee is dead, but which has an affecting and cathartic payoff. It happens when Red begins flirting with Counselor Healy (Michael Harney), but which in the end serves to further elucidate the complicated relationship Red has internally between her own empathy and her conniving desire for power.
Most significantly, it happens when Nichols begins her shtick-y, half-baked plan to deal drugs in partnership with a Litchfield employee, a plot point with earth-shattering and agonizingly poignant consequences.
And, at the end of the show’s sixth episode—the last that was made available for critics before Friday—there’s a shocking twist that promises to alter the entire show as we know it.
Through all of this, the show still forces you to confront complex issues, your own assumptions, and even the responsibility of the series itself.
There’s a scene in the premiere between Laverne Cox as transgender prisoner Sophia Burset and her son that is both monumental in its normalizing of a relationship between a transgender parent and her progeny, and also significant in the way it quietly turns the scene into a Very Big Deal. It’s a sly balancing act, but Cox and the show’s writers never wobble.
But on a larger scale, there’s the way the series continues to humanize the female prison population, a subset of America that has criminally (how ironic) been reduced to statistics, transformed into politicized talking points, and vilified en masse as stereotypes.
Black broadens its scope even more this year in this endeavor, using its “prisoner backstory” formula to paint fully realized portraits of inmates you never expected to care about, or maybe never even noticed.
There’s Lori Tan Chinn’s Chang, for example, a character that, if we’re generous, has maybe had a dozen or so lines of dialogue in the course of the series thus far, but who gets a rich backstory in an episode that explores the desperate circumstances facing Asian immigrants to the U.S., and the steely resolve needed to survive those circumstances—though that resolve may land you in jail.
And while OITNB has revolutionized the way race is discussed on television, the episode elucidates our culture and even the show’s own failings. For all the talk of issues related to black, white, and Hispanic cultures, the Asian experience is largely ignored—even in jail, where Chang and her commiserate, Kimiko Glenn’s Soso, discuss how they don’t fit in with any group at Litchfield because of their race, and how unfortunate that is.
An entire episode is also given to Jackie Cruz’s Flaca Gonzales, which might be the weakest of the show’s backstories and an example of how tedious OITNB’s seeming insistence to explore the pasts of even the most supporting of cast members might end up being. But then there’s a redeeming episode centered on Lea DeLaria’s Big Boo, a character that has been until now marginalized to comic relief cameos but proves to have traveled a complex and important journey to Litchfield.
DeLaria is given the opportunity to deliver a handful of monologues in her flashback about sexuality and acceptance that may be the most affecting in the first half of the new season, again exemplifying the singular pleasure of Orange Is the New Black: showcasing the wide range of undeniable chops of actresses who, because of their shapes or sizes or color, would otherwise have continued to be ignored by an industry that’s woefully close-minded and averse to diversity and opportunity.
But as we continue to learn more about this wide array of characters and continue to fall in deeper love with their curios and relationships with each other and erstwhile badassness, we’re occasionally jarred out of the love affair by sharp and pointed reminders that these people are criminals.
Is the show glorifying these people? Is there heroizing going on where it might be irresponsible to do so? Or are we simply overthinking the necessary humanization of these people? These are the types of meta ruminations that indicate just how powerfully OITNB has infiltrated the zeitgeist and embedded itself in our consciences and in our souls.
It’s a rare, wonderful, and unnerving thing when a TV show is able to do that. But no three words are more apt to describe Orange Is the New Black.