This is a spoiler-free zone. It’s safe to enter…
Just as the old proverb goes “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven,” it’s also easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a show going into its third season in 2015 to maintain critical approval and mass appeal.
Orange is the New Black is entering its third season, though it might as well be its 50th the way our cultural attention span works. TV shows have always been like restaurants: only a select few make it past their first year. But in our increasingly hectic and fast-paced media environment, even the shows that make it past their first season often feel contrived and tired, beaten down by the never-ceasing social media military-industrial complex.
This may sound absurd for a show that seems so young. If it were in college, it would just now be a junior, living off campus, breaking its second bong in a row and wondering why Jake in British Literature of the 1700s won’t text them back. Though Netflix may feel far removed from the media trends on “normal” television, the tastes of the viewing public are so different now than they were even in 2013 that Orange is the New Black may have well existed in a different era. Buzzwords like “content” and “franchises” rule the airwaves now. Even Netflix’s most popular 2015 offering is a Marvel property, which have basically become the best any entertainment company can hope to acquire nowadays.
So it remains to be seen what cultural cache the show maintains in its third season, two seasons removed from being television’s “next big thing.” It’s got a couple of things going in its favor. One is the still relatively unusual formatting decision of Netflix to release every episode at once. This largely robs the show of week-to-week discussion on the internet but helpfully forces audiences to discuss and consider the entire season as its own entity. The other is the show’s impressive, relatively enormous, and pleasantly diverse cast. There is yet another factor to consider, however: season three of Orange is the New Black is just very, very good.
Orange is like nothing else on television*. The aforementioned diverse and almost exclusively female cast has a lot to do with this. Complain about a massive liberal conspiracy all you want, racist-uncle-that-everyone-has, but highlighting faces we rarely see in mass entertainment is in no way pandering or charity. It’s just a sound artistic (and not to mention financial) decision. Seeing stories that feel familiar but with a level of diversity we rarely get to see feels fresh. Though, I must admit I’m taken aback with just how fresh season three of Orange is the New Black feels.
*And some purists would argue it’s not even on television. These people should be avoided and all their dumb political Facebook memes seized.
It would be disingenuous to call season three a reboot. All the same characters (the ones still alive, at least) are still there and chilling in the same Litchfield penitentiary environment. Not even that much time has passed from season to season. Only a few months separate season one and season three, as evidenced by Daya’s still pregnant status and some charmingly dated cultural references (R.I.P. My Chemical Romance and Tim Tebow’s playoff run). There wasn’t anything in the basic formula in the show that required changing, save for an unfortunate slapstick-y turn in season two’s ending. Still, the general tone in season three (based on the six episodes Netflix made available) feels reboot-y or at the very least a return to season one’s unexpected brilliance and grace
Due to the Netflixian all-at-once release strategy, it’s a little harder to get a true sense of each other’s cultural and critical consensus, though most seem to view season two to be a fine addition and complement to season one. I found it a little wanting, especially with the tacked on “season long big bad” component. Though critics and fans of season two alike should find season three a welcome return to basics. In many ways, season three matches and exceeds the high points of season one. For one, this is now a show without a main character…and that’s a good thing. Don’t let any Rolling Stone cover tell you otherwise.
Piper Kerman’s book is the inspiration for Orange is the New Black, the show and as such Piper Chapman has been the central character for two seasons. Even for Piper fans (and I know there are at least a few…you weirdos), the show must have come across as a little disjointed: dealing with Piper’s upper class white people problems ostensibly more than the other inmates. Season two began with an episode that featured only Piper exclusively with a little Alex thrown in. By contrast, Piper does not even appear until minute 12 of season three. Piper has blended seamlessly into the background. She still has her upper-class white people problems but they fit into the mosaic of the show instead of driving it. Not only is the show better for it, but Piper is as well. Instead of coming across as privileged or annoying, she just gets to be an intrinsic good as part of the supporting cast. As a supporting character, her habit of producing interesting but useless public radio trivia is endearing instead of bothersome.
There’s also a welcome return to comedy: broad, satiric or otherwise. Creator Jenji Kohan has recently claimed she sees the show as at least just as comedic as it is dramatic. At first, this seemed like a ploy to get Orange is the New Black into the relatively softer comedy category at the Emmys and Golden Globes. But based on season three she is absolutely right. Season three is hilarious. Pennsatucky is a comedic highlight in nearly episode and is developing an unlikely bromance with Boo. One character responds to the news that you don’t get crabs on your arm with “So what: like imitation crabs?” The ration of comedy to drama is reminiscent of something like an hour long Scrubs, as is the commitment to one setting and general quality. And I mean that as the highest compliment. When it comes time to name godparents of my child, I will do so by saying they remind me of Scrubs.
Oddly enough, children and parenthood represent a significant theme in season three. There is no Vee-style “big bad” and the only true overarching season-long plotline involves a financial situation at the prison out of the prisoner’s control. So in the relative vacuum of a huge season-long plot, motherhood steps in. Season three begins on Mother’s Day and from there, each episode at least touches on the topic of motherhood. In fact, most of the flashbacks (as strong and Lost-ian as ever) deal with the struggles each inmate has with her mother.
That may sound heavy, and indeed some of it is (one character’s emotional breakdown in episode three is among the best and heaviest scenes the show has ever produced) but Orange is the New Black never diverts far from what it does best: eliciting pure joy. At times, television comedy can feel like a Skinner box where characters are dropped into an environment and forced to interact for our amusement. Season three of Orange is the New Black is similar but the difference is that on other shows characters can find a different bar to hang out at or a different hospital to work. No one in Litchfield can leave and it makes the relationships all the more real and the drama all the more cutting. Orange is the New Black is the ultimate hang out comedy where the characters have no choice but to hang out with one another. We, the audience, however, can leave anytime we want but based on season three I don’t want to anytime soon.
This review is based on the first six episodes of season three. OITNB hits Netflix on Friday, June 12th.