Recurring Cast: Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Uzo Aduba, Nick Sandow, Taryn Manning, Dascha Polanco, Danielle Brooks, Samira Wiley, Lea DeLaria, Yael Stone, Selenis Leyva, Michael J. Harney, Natasha Lyonne, Laverne Cox, Matt McGorry and Kate Mulgrew
Most TV shows have a winning formula. For example, come to Breaking Bad for the crime drama, stay for the characters. Come to How I Met Your Mother for a few laughs, stay for the characters. Come to Walking Dead for the zombies, stay for the characters. Orange is the New Black is probably the first show I have liked that runs with the policy: come for the characters, stay for the characters. The show lives and dies on how much you like its cast and characters. Sure, Orange is the New Black is a comedy, especially this season which shakes off some of Season Two’s darker side and goes back to its roots of having a laugh with its surreal group of prisoners. However, no one is pretending that the comedy is Orange is the New Black’s strongest suit, even if the laughs here are knee-slappingly terrific. Character led dramas often are a tricky breed of television to get right, because if the writers make a few bad moves along the way, suddenly our favourite series turns into a pretty unwatchable one in the space of a few hours. Luckily Season Three doesn’t suggest that the producers, writers or excellent cast are losing touch with the show, meaning that we are as pleased as ever with our latest experience in Litchfield Prison.
There isn’t even a strong sense of story this time around either. This isn’t to say that it is a thirteen episode run of chaos, as every character arc and narrative point is carefully planned to hide the fact that there isn’t a principal arc anywhere. The closest thing to a main plot is the fact that Caputo is struggling to keep his prison open. In order to keep his staff employed, he allows private investors to come in and take control, meaning that the correctional facility is a slave to expense cuts, untrained staff and lax security. This is kept in the background mostly, giving the staff characters a few running jokes and themes to tackle. However, little details in this main story arc gives birth to several smaller storylines dotted throughout the show. Nicky needs to get her heroin out of the prison. Alex suspects someone is being smuggled into the prison to kill her. Norma slowly becomes the head of her own cult, accidentally becoming one of the more powerful figures in the prison, pushing her old friend, Red, out of the picture. None of these stories really take the central spotlight, the only one really cropping up continuosly throughout the whole season being Daynara’s pregnancy. I think, while this means that the third season is probably not as memorable as the first two, it does give the slight thrill of you never being sure where the real drama is going to come from. Will the major finale rush come from Norma’s accidental cult suddenly spirally out of control? Or perhaps the small grudge building up between Gloria and Sophia (Laverne Cox is incredible this season), will result into something darker. It also does the nice job of hammering home the point that Orange is the New Black does not rely on any specific character. Sure, maybe Red, Piper and Alex are hogging all the glory for the first half of the season, but a surprisingly emotional plot line between old villain and now fan-favourite, Pennsatucky, crops up that hits really hard. It starts off as a pleasant new romance, but quickly becomes something much more controversial. Taryn Manning’s performance is subdued yet heart-breaking, mainly due to the character’s denial of the crisis she is living through.
Let’s talk Piper Chapman. Her character is technically the lead star of the show and while Taylor Schlling is never any actress to be written off completely, it could be argued that Season Two lost its way with her a bit. Orange is the New Black is such an ensemble piece that it could be argued to be guilty of fumbling away the character, as it explores the supporting cast. Sure, Piper is fun, but it is much more interesting to dissect Crazy Eyes or that one inmate that hasn’t even got a mention yet. This season seems to plunge even deeper down that road as Chapman seemed to be reacting to various storylines, rather than having her own set of problems. She is there to talk to Alex, as her paranoia gets bad. She is there to bounce off Red, when her problems crop up. To a point, the show just uses her as a vehicle to help us understand the changes happening to the prison. Piper’s lack of story becomes especially noticeable, when you realises Jason Biggs has left the cast this time around. Narratively, I like this decision, because it adds to this idea that Piper is losing touch with the outside world; now there are no connections to Piper’s life outside of Litchfield. But for the first half of Season Three, she is devoid of a proper storyline to make the change look smooth. Then, halfway through, the writers figure out exactly what to do with her and Chapman becomes the one to watch once again. I am not going to spoil the direction the show takes, because half the fun is that penny-dropping moment when we figure out who Chapman is becoming over the course of the next few seasons. Taylor Schlling is as awesome as always. There was also one sub-plot that interested me, regarding this show creating strong female characters. Just when Piper gets Alex to love her back after two seasons of ‘back-and-forth’, her eyes begin to wander. Alex becomes increasingly frustrating to bond with, because of her growing paranoia and Piper ends up flirting with newbie prisoner, Ruby Rose (bringing the trend of every actress on the show being able to act to a grinding halt). This is an interesting plot point, because I have seen this character before: it is the charismatic male lead, who is able to cheat or manipulate the girlfriend figure, because she is the loveable anti-hero, we will like despite her actions. Alex needs Piper more than she has ever needed her before, and Chapman’s reactions are self-serving. It was a really interesting turn for the character and it felt like the writers testing a whole new road for female characters on TV to take. I reckon it could be a very divisive topic in the critic’s world.
On the whole, Orange is the New Black is as well-written and as impressive as ever. It will struggle to appease anyone that hasn’t gotten onto the bandwagon yet. The trick to bear in mind if you want to become an Orange is the New Black fan is that the pay-off doesn’t always come straight away. The jokes are funnier if you get the dynamic of the prison. The stories are more hard-hitting if we fully understand the characters and have grown to love them. And the stories are often best kept small and miniscule until the last possible moment. Only then will you understand that Orange is the New Black is at its best, when it lets you peek at its hand. There aren’t any sweeping ‘pull-the-rug-from-your-feet’ moments, but rather a slight nod to the audience, where suddenly it dawns on them where the show is heading. One small plot development for Gloria could be a jaw-dropping one for Red. One frame might mean little for Caputo, but suddenly make Chang’s silent character implode. It takes a lot of hard work for a show like Orange is the New Black to get where it is, so now that it has got there, we can strap ourselves in and go for the ride.
Final Verdict: Less dazzle than Season One and less surprises than Season Two… yet Season Three boasts staying power, stronger humour and a few small tricks that will have you applauding everyone involved.