***Some spoilers for season 3 and past seasons of Orange is the New Black***
It’s the Tuesday following a major Netflix release and all of us are crawling out of our caves, battered and bruised, squinting at the light of day and shielding the sun from our eyes. You peeled off your sweatpants and hissed at the person who tried to reach for the coffee pot before you, and now you have to pretend your day at work isn’t going to be a complete wash. And with all that, you know the one thing that actually makes it bad? Season 3 of Orange is the New Black was hardly even worth it.
And believe me, it hurts to say.
In what began as a drama focused on a privileged, annoying woman and her stint in prison in Season 1, Piper Chapman was proven to be a storyteller’s Trojan horse in Season 2 – a clever means to tricking white mainstream audiences into paying attention to the stories of women of color. Season 3’s arrival was met with expectations of the same, but instead delivered several middling plots with little focus at all.
In fact, the overarching theme of the effects that privatization of prisons have on inmates hardly even showed itself until the end of the season, which is especially strange given that some of the character-driven subplots were fairly cheap filler for much of it. The most egregious example is probably Alex Voss’ paranoia of harm that showed to be a head-fake, a cheap build up for a weak punch line, and essentially replaced Chapman’s season 1 role of being the uninteresting privileged white character stealing inordinate amounts of screen time – on both present-day and with flashbacks – from other plots that needed attention.
[quote_left]Would you care about a character’s past when you’ve been taught not to pay them any mind in the present?[/quote_left]How many character plots were glossed over with lackluster development? Many. My first raised eyebrow came from a 1-minute flashback of a neglectful mother brushing off the efforts of a young Nicky on Mother’s Day. As one of the original cast members with significant growth throughout the series, we’ve seen several flashbacks to her past and had high hopes for her future. Nicky is, for many fans, one of the favorite women to root for, and the flashback felt amiss as such a short and meaningless insight into her life relative to what we already knew. Then the ax fell when Nicky was suddenly written off the show… in episode 3.
The next misfire came with Chang who, in episode 6, was rewarded a rather exhaustive flashback for one of the more invisible characters. At first blush her being given a backstory might seem like the exact type of character depth we want explored, except when you consider that throughout 3 seasons she’s hardly been shown as worthy of attention, empathy, or any consideration at Litchfield at all. Would you care about a character’s past when you’ve been taught not to pay them any mind in the present? In terms of representation, Orange is the New Black begins to resemble a show that knows what strings to mindlessly pull with its audience, like giving nods and verbal cues through a conversation you’ve lost interest in having.
In a strange twist of writing, Poussey’s loneliness and Suzanne’s space-erotica were perhaps the strongest plots that were both entertaining and maintained through most of the season. There were others more longstanding – Daya’s pregnancy, Red’s power struggles, and Norma’s cult, to name a few – although those suffered from many of their own woes. [quote_right]The result was a mixed bag of semi-interesting stories that never tied together right[/quote_right]Bennett was lazily written off shortly after Nicky, Red had more side-plots than your latest RPG making it impossible to know what’s important (thus making none of her plots important), and I can’t even critique the plot given Norma because you can’t constructively criticize something so whack. The result was a mixed bag of semi-interesting stories that never tied together right, like a 5-year old trying to make a rubber band ball.
Okay, so the drama wasn’t all bad. Some plots were actually great in developing feelings for characters we didn’t know we had. The most compelling probably came from Pennsatucky, whom everyone’s felt some type of way about in the past, and whom everyone feels a little different about now. What makes her character even more impressive is that we’ve already seen a lot of her backstory – Pennsatucky is one of the few characters who was effectively given a second round of complexity, and the second round was as important to audiences as the first. Soso’s battle with depression, Boo’s unwavering sense of identity, and Taystee’s evolution into the mother hen were all well-done developments reminiscent of what we felt when audiences started this journey back in Season 1.
Season 3 shined most where it has consistently shined in the past, and that’s by staying funny as hell. From the quest for Judaism and kosher meals, to Caputo and Figueroa’s hate-sex with a side of psychoanalysis, Orange is the New Black has scenes that make you pause in laughter and rewind to play again. The characters have chemistry that makes each hilarious scene feel genuinely improvised by friends, or characters like Suzanne and Poussey can carry the responsibility of a comedic scene all by themselves.
I remember talking with friends about a year ago, discussing whether the show was more comedy or drama. We Google-searched award criteria – it’s won awards as both comedy and drama – but settled on celebrating Orange is the New Black as one of the few shows that walk a fence so brilliantly between the two. Through 2 seasons it managed the feat in a way very few other shows have.
Overall, Season 3 of Orange is the New Black will be the season where it chose a side of the fence. It’s good at what it does, if what it does is comedy. Character development can be our bonus, because when it comes to drama I don’t know the show has much left to say.