The debate over whether “Orange Is the New Black” qualifies as a comedy or drama for awards purposes (spoiler alert: The Emmys say it’s the latter) seems especially appropriate in light of a third season that, through six episodes, deftly mixes elements of both. After slightly disjointed patches in season two, this chapter possesses a breezier quality, and features strong flashback sequences, peeling away more layers regarding its sprawling cast. Frankly, “Orange” doesn’t look well equipped to make much headway in a brutally competitive drama field, but for Netflix, the passion the series engenders nevertheless makes it a clear winner.
As usual, “Orange” – chronicling the various travails involving the occupants of a women’s prison and those charged with overseeing them – is all over the place, operating on so many fronts that there’s inevitably a bit of unevenness to the quality of the stories. That said, there’s a clever, overarching wrinkle regarding the uncertain future of the prison itself, which provides a fairly solid foundation upon which the rest can unfold, with Nick Sandow, as the world-weary prison administrator, proving especially good as this plot develops.
The entry point into all of this, of course, was Piper (Taylor Schilling), who was ripped from her yuppie existence and exposed to the brutality and sheer craziness of what happens behind those walls. Now a relatively old hand in these unforgiving surroundings, she is once again involved with former girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon), although their tortured history unleashes a series of complications, which include periodic bouts of rough, hair-pulling sex in search as much of emotional release as physical gratification.
“I lie, I get in trouble; I truth, I get in trouble,” Piper grumbles at one point.
There’s a lot of clever dialogue along those lines, courtesy of series creator Jenji Kohan and her writing team, as well as darkly comedic interludes, like an outbreak of bed bugs infesting the prison. At its best, though, “Orange” challenges perceptions regarding the inmates, such as a flashback in a later episode about Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), who is shown grappling with being a lesbian – from casual bigotry to her judgmental mother – before landing in prison. “I refuse to be invisible,” she tells her dad, who at least sees the futility of forcing their little girl to wear frilly dresses.
What seems clear now, and wasn’t necessarily at the outset, is that “Orange Is the New Black” has moved well beyond Piper’s particular story to become a much broader template that stars, in essence, Litchfield Penitentiary – a place where, as with the most durable of TV series, the setting allows for an element of turnover. Just as in shows set in an ER, police precinct or office, inmates can come and go, but the issues facing the incarcerated, and the questions surrounding how they’re treated, linger.
So while “Orange Is the New Black” might not have the right stuff to garner much major awards attention beyond what it has already notched, in TV terms it does possess an elusive attribute that’s incredibly valuable. Sure, the dilapidated facilities at Litchfield are falling apart, but the series is blessed with a concept, with the right stewardship, that’s built to last.