Saturday, June 27, 2015

Season 3 is a minor step down, but Orange is the New Black is still terrific

For some reason, it seems like Orange is the New Black is fated to fall apart.  Maybe it's because Jenji Kohan's previous series was Weeds, a show most of its fans would agree flew off the rails as it went on.  Maybe it's because there's no real precedent for a show like this, so it's travelling on uncharted terrain.  Maybe it's because all things in life inevitably decay.  Either way, it seems like the writing is on the wall for Netflix's hit prison dramedy, despite the fact that its fantastic second season was better than the first.

That's why I'm thankful that the step down the show took this year isn't a worrisome one.  There's no doubt about it: season three of Orange is the New Black is not as good as the previous two.  In a way, it feels like a conscious effort to not be season two, which was much darker due to the focus on Vee's tyrannical reign.  There's a lighter tone this time around, as Kohan and the writing crew push the series back towards the comedy end of the spectrum.  As a result, it faces the problem that many shows that try to turn up the brightness run into, in that it's hard for the drama to feel a little less substantial and a little more fluffy.  Not only did Vee's presence make the show darker, but it gave the previous season a central post to revolve its entire story around.  Without a force like that, season three occasionally feels rudderless, with no real macro plot to hold everything together.  The closest thing it has to one -- MMR's takeover of Litchfield -- doesn't even directly involve any of the characters we care about.

Yet even in its lowest moments, the show always reminds you of just how special it is.  Sometimes you have to just take a step back and marvel at how many rich, layered characters it has, almost all of them women.  And they exist in a setting that isn't just a place, but a thriving ecosystem that feels like there's life in cracks and corners we aren't even privy to.  (In my review of the previous season, I compared Orange is the New Black to Deadwood.  That comparison applies tenfold this time around.)  The world keeps stretching further and further outward -- the connections between characters have been built, and now the writers are having fun letting them play out.

Such a massive show is bound to have entire subplots that don't work in each season.  This one seemed to have a few more.  Chiefly, it feels like the writers have completely lost the thread on Piper, despite Taylor Schilling continuing to give one of TV's best, most committed performances.  The romantic complications of Piper and Alex are still as much of a snore as ever, and the choice to turn Piper into something of a villain with the only occasionally amusing panty selling plot felt like a logical, but uninteresting endpoint.  Elsewhere, the Norma cult gave birth to some fantastic offshoot plotlines, but was a little messy in and of itself.  Other storylines just felt like all setup, like the machinations to get Blair Brown's celebrity chef character to Litchfield in time for season four.

But there is so much good material to drown out the few bum notes.  The show is always at its best when it's about systems failing people, and there are many examples of that in season three, the most compelling being Soso's arc, where better mental health care could've prevented her from reaching the point of trying to take her own life.  (This season turned Soso into one of the most vital characters on the show.  Soso!)  But Orange is also about people failing each other.  One of my other favorite storylines of the season is the conflict between Sophia and Mendoza, where pride and anger keep them from reaching an understanding between one another.  As we view more and more of these people's lives -- it seems like a series of escalating dares to see how minor of a character the writers can flesh out or give a flashback to -- this dramedy set in a minimum security prison becomes a rich tapestry of human experience.

The thing connecting these people this year is the theme of motherhood.  Even if Kohan hadn't made that explicit in pre-season interviews, it would have been obvious anyway, given the way season three continues to hammer the point home.  Almost every flashback contains a strained mother-daughter relationship in some way, Daya's pregnancy takes up a large amount of space in the prison storylines, Piper has an out-of-nowhere line where she gasps and says "I'm just like my mother" in episode two -- the list goes on.  For a while, it seemed like the show doesn't really have anything to say other than "mothers!," but it starts to take shape towards the last string of episodes.  So much of season three is about the ways each character finds comfort -- through sex, liquor, erotic fiction, schemes to keep the mind busy, faith, etc.  Motherhood is one of those things, but many of these women were robbed of good mothers or are being robbed of the opportunity to be a good mother.

Such is the nature of Orange is the New Black.  It always finds a way to bring everything together, and it's only until everything has snapped into place that the impressive structure reveals itself.  Season three bleeds all of its mini-stories into one another, culminating in a characteristically dazzling final trio of episodes.  "Trust No Bitch," the season finale, manages to wrap up almost every plotline in one single scene at a lake where the inmates gather, when a maintenance crew leaves the prison fence wide open.  It should land like something out of a hokey, soon-to-be-forgotten Sundance film, yet it feels absolutely powerful.  Through season three may have had some bumps along the road, an ending like that proves that Orange is the New Black is still a vibrant, special piece of television.

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