No, I haven’t binge-watched the entire new season of Orange Is The New Black in one sleepless, bleary-eyed frenzy. This season, the show’s third, doesn’t lend itself to that kind of viewing. The pace is slower, the cliff-hangers missing. There’s no vulnerable newcomer to Litchfield Penitentiary, as Piper Chapman was in Season One, and no villainous rivalry to compete with Red and Vee’s fight to the death during Season Two. That’s a shame. It was worth a bit of lost sleep to see those two women go head to head, alongside their loyal crews, though the plot was also fuel for critics who have accused the show of racism.
Racist, not racist; progressively queer, not queer enough: there’s a think piece on Orange Is The New Black to suit any political position you might care to take. I don’t think I have a drop to add to this already overflowing bucket, except to note that passionate reactions to this show are an ample demonstration of why we need more genuine diversity on television. Orange Is The New Black is made to carry the can for every viewer who yearns to see themselves (not male, or not white, or not straight, or not middle class) onscreen, and that’s a burden no single series can bear. If there were dozens of ensemble dramas with majority female casts for viewers to choose from, the pressure on OITNB to get its representations perfect would be proportionally less, but there aren’t, yet. Not even close.
Meanwhile, the latest plot lines might be a bit … dull? Piper (Taylor Schilling), our erstwhile protagonist, has been boring since approximately thirty minutes into Season One — why she’s still hanging around more than twenty-six episodes later baffles me. Her periodic epiphanies as to her own selfishness have yet to lead to any real personality change, and her dysfunctional romance with Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) limps on, its energy burnt out long ago. At least her smug best friend and her schmuck of a fiancé seem, at last, to have been written out of the script. Small mercies.
The basic problem with setting a show inside a prison is that you can’t really go anywhere. Not for Orange Is The New Black the sweeping story arcs of The Wire or Breaking Bad, which ranged across locations. To get around this obstacle, the show has been structured around flashbacks, which serve a dual purpose: to get us outside the prison and to fill in the backstories of the various inmates. This proved effective for the first season, when, like Piper, viewers were newcomers to Litchfield. Now that we’ve settled in, the flashbacks yield diminishing returns — they seem to interrupt momentum, while adding little of importance to our understanding of character. This season we learn, among other back stories, that Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), swashbuckling butch dyke and self-styled ‘Lord of the lesbians’, was alienated from her parents due to her gender nonconformity (yeah, I might have guessed that). And quiet, watchful Mei Chang (Lori Tan Chinn) turns out to have been a shy but vengeful young woman whose arranged marriage to a Chinese-American man fell through, which doesn’t much help to explain her present-day isolation, where she is one of a very few prisoners without any real friends.
Look, it’s not all bad. Laverne Cox, as Sophia, still lifts every scene she’s in, including, in episode one of the new season, a poignant exchange with her teenage son about what it means to be a transgender parent on Mothers’ Day. (Can we please have a spin-off series called Jail Salon already? I’d pay to watch Sophia dispense life advice and give haircuts for a full hour per episode, no question.) The friendship between Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks) remains tender, full of love but unable to properly compensate for the pain that each of these women carries with them. And Sam Healy (Michael J. Harney) is a still a patronising, narcissistic creep of a staff counsellor.
Season Four, unsurprisingly, has already been commissioned. So when’s the prison riot?