Whenever I dig into a new season of “Orange is the New Black,” my favorite part is the first five minutes or so of every episode, as it becomes clear what character will be the focus of this installment. The show’s “Lost”-like structure — by and large taking the opportunity to focus on one of the inmates or employees of Litchfield Penitentiary — means that once Regina Spektor is done singing over the show’s opening credits, we’re on the verge of learning more about Boo, or Chang, or Norma, or any of the other idiosyncratic folks who wander the penitentiary in search of a little happiness. Of course, happiness is in short supply inside a federal penitentiary — but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
And that’s one of the most exciting things about “Orange,” which enters its third season a calm, confident and yet deeply emotional beast. A show initially created on the back of a narrative steeped with white privilege — “what happens when a pretty white woman from an upper-class background has to go to prison with the non-white people and the poors?” — “Orange” has now stripped that away to the point where Piper, by the end of Season 3, is at times almost an afterthought to the primary story being told. In Season 1, “Orange” was Piper’s story. Here in Season 3, “Orange” belongs to everyone. And it’s much improved for it.
While key members of the cast are swapped out at various points of the season to accommodate the fact that they’ve found more high-profile jobs on other shows, creator Jenji Kohan and team handles that by letting the season be the most inclusive yet, with only one or two major characters getting repeat flashbacks to explain how they ended up in prison. Instead, fan favorites like Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Chang (Lori Tan Chinn) get their turn in the spotlight, with affecting results.
In addition, both the first and last episodes of the season serve as omnibus looks back at the full panorama of characters, grappling with their relationships with motherhood and God — confirming the show’s status as one of the most diverse and human series running today. Race, age, appearance, sexuality — doesn’t matter. What does matter is the same sort of existential crisis that undercuts all of the great television we’ve seen recently: A search for meaning in unforgiving circumstances.
In Season 3, the person for whom this search seems least affecting is Piper, for whom the lack of central focus means a characterization lacking in complexity — she has a storyline, but one not nearly as interesting or deep as some of the others, including Sophia (Laverne Cox) and Gloria (Selenia Leyva) butting heads as they attempt to parent their sons from prison, or Red (Kate Mulgrew) seeking to reclaim her once-lost authority in the Litchfield ecosystem.
Acting-wise, Schilling has some powerhouse moments, including one particularly memorable and hilarious speech as she recruits inmates into her latest scheme. But “Orange” fans who like to say that Piper and her problems are the least interesting part of the show (and trust me, there are hoards of them on Tumblr) will find that Season 3, by and large, agrees with them.
One of the show’s biggest creative decisions as the season progresses is a change in the management behind Litchfield, which results in the show losing its undercurrent of critique about the political and sociological elements that has lead to America’s current penitentiary system, and shifts it to a general debate about the privatization of social services.
It turns out “Orange” is more skilled at depicting and/or mocking corporate structure than it is at tackling the much larger socio-economic issues that have driven so many lower-class and minority people into correctional facilities. This is probably because it’s a helluva lot easier to attack big business, which makes for cleaner but less subtle storytelling. However, Mike Birbiglia is perfect as the bland representation of the prison’s new corporate oversight, which is far from unresolved by the end of the season.
What a weird season it is. Plans fall apart. Confidences get betrayed. A new religion is founded. An erotic masterpiece is written. And all over the place, weird and beautiful friendships appear. Going to prison makes strange bedfellows, in the world of “Orange,” and one of the show’s most basic pleasures is seeing characters like unapologetically butch Boo and the once homicidally born-again Christian Tiffany (Taryn Manning) develop a deep bond. We watch TV shows for the characters. We stay with them for the relationships.
Everything operates on a slightly heightened plane, one that ensures that the show is the most dramedy-ish dramedy on television, and one that ensures that “Orange” is not for everyone. But for those who love this world, it’s truly addictive.
The question that runs through my head, every time I sit down with “Orange,” is this: Why is it that a show about women in prison is so powerful an encapsulation of the way basic facts like love and sex and power and fear shape lives? And it really comes down to the diversity of the lives put on screen, especially the way the show champions women who don’t look like its marquee stars.
A recent “Inside Amy Schumer” sketch featured a female detective whose unappealing appearance made her literally invisible to the people around her; it’s a feeling that many women can identify with, a feeling that’s easy to latch onto with each passing episode. Within the prison system — a system deliberately designed to strip away individual identity, sublimate self-worth — it becomes a powerful thing to see women struggle to define their value. To believe they have any value at all, that they have autonomy over their bodies and choices.
A late-season episode focusing on Doggett proves to be one of the most heart-breaking of the series yet — not because it features one of the show’s most graphic moments of sexual violence, but because of this one scene, in which Doggett experiences a little genuine happiness. “Is that what they write songs about?” she asks in astonishment. It’s something she didn’t understand she could ever have. Something she didn’t even believe she deserved to demand.
Even in episodes which feature the backstories of the show’s male characters, “Orange” is a show about women — a show that is so powerful because it shouts against the idea that a single “strong female character” equals diversity. There are women who prefer to be invisible, and women who demand to be seen, and women who just want to get through the day. Sometimes, they make mistakes that land them in prison. But “Orange” finds the beauty in them, even in their most stripped down and ugly moments. Because “Orange” makes sure that they are seen.