Six episodes were provided for review purposes prior to broadcast.
Just when you thought it was time to go back in the water, have a picnic, or just generally interact with the outside world without fear of falling behind on TV, Netflix has once again ensured that at least 13 hours of your summer will be spent indoors. Orange is the New Black Season 3 drops in its entirety on June 12, and makes a compelling case for bathing in the glow of a computer screen instead of sunlight. Through the first six hours of the new season, Orange is the New Black remains Netflix’s best original series by a good stretch, and fans shouldn’t fear their favorite show having lost its mojo in the 51 weeks since they tore through the last batch.
For others, though, myself included, that dependability is becoming not an outright problem for the series, but at least a sign of the bloom coming off the rose. The success story of OITNB’s first season was born out of impossible to replicate circumstances. Back in 2013, it was to the show’s immense benefit that it, and Netflix’s original programming brand were nowhere on the map. When it premiered, the disruptive breadth, casting, and story focus of Jenji Kohan’s prison drama was unlike anything on television. Thanks to a wide cast of breakout characters that could tell different stories about race, gender, sexuality and class in ways both studied and hilarious, Orange is the New Black earned a following and accolades that few shows achieve in a freshman year.
Rather than becoming a victim of its own success in Season 2, the show played to strengths by filling out the edges of Litchfield Correctional. It was a move that was bound to pay off because Orange is the New Black is a show about characters, first and foremost. What little evidence remained in Season 2 to suggest that this was just the story of Taylor Schilling’s Piper Chapman has completely disappeared in Season 3, giving the show a cast, not a star to orient itself around. Where the second season upset the broth was by adding an outright villain in Vee, a character dramatically brought to life by Lorraine Toussaint, but that played against the usual low stakes and convivial atmosphere of the series.
The key to what Orange is the New Black does so well, and why it’s one of the only shows to make use of both Netflix’s release model and hour-pushing episode lengths, is its willingness to take its time. Things happen every episode, but this isn’t a show that relies on plot to explore its themes or ask questions about how we relate to other people. Rather, it drops you into the same space with all these weird, damaged but wonderful people, and asks, “Wanna hang out?” The answer is almost always a resounding “Yes,” because getting to know Taystee, Nichols, Morello, Gloria, and more than a dozen other characters I can name off the top of my head is funny and insightful. Where other shows try to stuff you with as many twists and turns as an hour can allow, Orange is the New Black is fine toilet hooch that’s best enjoyed for its relaxed pace and unique blend of flavors.
Season 3 gets back to these simple pleasures in the absence of a singular antagonistic force. Vee may be gone, but life behind bars goes on. There’s a whole host of new problems that those running and rundown by Litchfield are dealing with this year, but they’re carefully woven into the novelistic approach that the show uses for individual character stories. The premiere, “It’s the Great Blumpkin, Charlie Brown,” picks up with the inmates on Mother’s Day, and smartly uses the occasion to let us get reacquainted. From there, the biggest plot point of the season is mostly kept hidden from the larger prison population: Litchfield needs to be bought, or it’s going to be shuttered.