THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS “ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK” SPOILERS.
Third time’s the charm, although maybe not for the ladies of Litchfield. “Orange is the New Black” returned to Netflix this month with characters reeling from the conclusion of its second season. Suzanne, or Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), is still convinced Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) will return. Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) has returned, thanks to Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) tipping off her parole officer. Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) is now assistant warden and interim head of the prison. Once again, the show, helmed by Jenji Kohan, is peppered with multiple plot lines and a beloved ensemble cast, but whatever made it so addicting the first two times is no longer there.
What could be lacking is nuance. Themes this season — LGTBQ bullying, rape, feminism — come off as heavy-handed societal messages, instead of story elements that organically spawn discussion and awareness. Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), a transgender inmate whose plot lines have involved reconciling with her son and the prison not giving her access to hormones, now becomes the victim of abuse simply because of her gender identity. The change seems sudden — Sofia used to be beloved by the other citizens of Litchfield — and seems to preach the dangers of intolerance more than help develop her particular character arc.
This season most likely suffers, however, because it’s the first time there has been no central plot. Season 1 saw the unconventional Piper-Larry-Alex love triangle. Season 2 was the showdown between Vee and Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew). This year, there’s a lot going on and all of it seems minor compared to what’s happened before. There’s some corporate drama — Georgetown students might recognize Mike Birbiglia (COL ’00) as a paper-pusher with daddy issues — baby-mama drama and, of course, lesbian relationship drama.
That’s not to say it’s bad. Kohan and the writing team are aware viewers are tired of Piper, and the flashbacks and storylines cater to characters who didn’t receive as much attention in seasons past. We see Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and her relationship with her parents as well as a glimpse into the heartbreaking past (and present) of Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Dogget (Taryn Manning). Norma (Annie Golden) starts a pseudo-cult, populated with everyone from druggie Leanne (Emma Myles) to lonely Poussey (Samira Wiley).
But just because she has less screen time doesn’t mean Piper isn’t still scheming; when the opportunity presents itself, she jumps into a new business venture that is simultaneously hilarious and disconcerting. And for once, things seem to be working out for her and her off-again, on-again lover, Alex, at least until new inmate Lolly (Lori Petty) triggers Alex’s paranoia that her old boss has sent someone to the prison to kill her. While Alex is busy glancing over her shoulder, Piper is falling into old patterns and lusting after someone she isn’t dating. This time, it’s gender-fluid Stella (Ruby Rose).
While “OITNB” may struggle to recapture what made it so special when it was originally released, Kohan doesn’t let the endless plot lines detract from the show’s strongest element. The profundity of people coming together, often unexpectedly and in surprising pairings, is not lost. Healy (Michael Harney) makes a new friend, while Brooke Soso (Kimiko Glenn) searches for one. Former heroin junkies discover community through a new religion. Boo and Pennsatucky become the season’s most unlikely BFFs. The final episode is a testament to the importance of finding solidarity in strange places, although it’s not until then that anything of dramatic significance actually happens. The cliffhangers were a welcome surprise, although the other 12 episodes could have benefited from an equal amount of suspense — it was the first time I cared about Alex and the first time Poussey didn’t seem frustratingly maudlin in over half a day’s worth of TV.
“Orange” has been renewed, and hopefully, this season’s bumps will be smoothed out and its growing pains forgotten by round four next year.