Starting a season of Orange is the New Black a week after it drops on Netflix is like traveling back in time to an indeterminate date in March 1912 and boarding the Titanic. You know bad things are going to happen — it’s just a matter of where and when.
I haven’t been spoiled on any major developments yet, but I’ve seen enough references to plot developments and general story directions to have a clue about a few very unfortunate events to come. I also know which characters will play a prominent or notable role in the season, at least to the degree that they’re worth tweeting about.
A little bit of foresight helps with an episode like “Work That Body for Me,” which bounces in manic fashion around the Litchfield women’s prison, in an effort to pick up as many of last season’s dangling plot threads as possible. For the first time in the show’s history, the new season picks up in media res, immediately after the events of last season’s closing scene, in which most of the prisoners escape through a hole in the fence and revel in a nearby lake. They didn’t say it, for fear of spoiling the moment, but even the prisoners knew the ecstasy of their brief escape couldn’t last long.
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.
I’m just about to hit the halfway point in my journey through the second season of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. Before I go any further, a quick clarification:
These instant reactions are not meant to take the place of a thoughtful, well-reasoned “take” on the show as a whole. Rather, I use them as a way of reacting to specific moments in each episode, so that I can savor the show’s micro pleasures and remember them when I’m considering the season as a whole. None of these judgments are definitive, but that doesn’t make them invalid. Orange is the New Black was created with this kind of binge-watching strategy in mind – I’m just intermittently taking stock of the experience.
Think of these post-episode reviews as a means of collecting my thoughts, gathering my emotions and dropping anchor after each hour of character maneuvers and poignant flashbacks. This show has a lot of layers and almost as many characters. Writing about each episode is a means of striving for clarity, not passing judgment.
With that, on with the show. (Check my previous blog post for my thoughts on each of the first six episodes of season two.)
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.