The third season of Orange is the New Black (which arrived three hours early on Netflix tonight) opens on a sex joke – nay, several jokes about bad sex jokes. Thus begins one of the most loosely plotted episodes in the show’s history.
That’s a smart move on the part of Netflix and showrunner Jenji Kohan. The structure of a television season that unfolds weekly need not apply to a television season that’s intended for speed-consumption (I’ve been trying to purge “binge-watching” from my vocabulary, with mixed success). As soon as the first episode is finished, you can cue the second one without even lifting a finger.
It’s smart, then, for OITNB to return on an episode that immerses viewers in its richly detailed world without submerging it in a sea of intertwined plotlines just yet. And Orange, more than most shows, sustains such an approach. Seeing all of the Litchfield inmates again is like being reminded of a group of old friends you haven’t thought about in a while. For a few minutes, all you can do is think about the good times and the great one-liners. Then reality sets in, and you remember that sometimes you had issues with those friends. Or rather, that they had issues of their own.
If Orange is the New Black were primarily plot-driven, the second season finale “We Have Manners, We’re Polite” might have been unsatisfying. Instead of culminating in a massive prison-spanning battle or a bloody showdown between Kate and Vee, the season ends with an unexpectedly macabre and darkly funny exclamation point, as the ailing Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) takes out the villainous Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) with her car on her way towards a few final weeks of freedom. After an entire season of swirling contraband and shifting loyalties, the season’s principal villain is dispatched in a matter of seconds, learning none of the lessons she probably ought to have learned before she passed on.
But Orange is the New Black is not primarily a plot-driven show. It’s well established that Orange is the New Black has one of the most diverse casts of any “television show” ever. There’s no use making like a broken record and praising the show yet again for opening a space filled by a diverse array of voices and perspectives. The show’s true genius, and the key to its success, is the way in which it takes full advantage of its diverse cast to tell stories about complicated people who have made irredeemable mistakes and yet still retain shreds of humanity.
When 2013 began, House of Cards was widely predicted to be the show that would make or break Netflix as a potential long-term player in the increasingly diverse business of producing television. The show debuted to much fanfare and knee-jerk critical praise, though some viewers soured on the show after realizing that it is arguably an unremarkable show dressed up in the trappings of a remarkable one.
At the peak of the House of Cards backlash, a new Netflix show quietly entered the ring. I’m not going to mince words: Orange is the New Black (one of my ten favorites shows of 2013) is superior to House of Cards, and to most of what’s on television.