There aren’t too many reviews of “Orange Is the New Black’s” third season, which premieres June 12, up yet, but the few that have surfaced so far lay out tantalizing prospects for the episodes to come. The six episodes made available in advance are evidence of a season that continues to expand beyond the focus on Piper Kerman, as well as taking on one of the biggest issues in the prison system: privatization. Spoilers are slim, but we know thus far that Litchfield Correctional in the post-Fig era needs a new source of income if it is to stay open, and that presents a whole host of possibilities. The danger is that diminishing returns may be setting in with the show’s flashback structure: There are only so many characters whose backstories we want to know, and only so much backstory to tell, which means either giving us background on characters we don’t necessarily want it for or inventing new stories that complement but don’t overlap with the ones already told. One reviewer compares it to “Lost,” although OITNB isn’t likely to switch to flash-forwards or -sideways any time soon. We’ll keep you posted as more reviews surface, but for now, here’s a taste of what to expect.
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
What was so impressive about season two was that Kohan deftly wriggled out of a potential creative jam (a story just about Piper flinching and then slowly adjusting to her prison experience didn’t have a lot of legs) and simultaneously took advantage of a creative opportunity (a brilliant, likable, large and ethnically diverse cast that all kinds of fans had become attached to). Season two illustrated emphatically that “Orange” could be a true ensemble story, and that its biggest challenge — so many characters — was its greatest strength. Adding a whole new character for various storylines to revolve around ended up looking like a slice of genius when the dust settled.
In season three of “Orange,” the main takeaway from the early episodes is that having all of these women back onscreen makes for a very welcome return. This is one of those rare series where the characters are so strong and the audience so devoted to them that their mere appearance sometimes trumps whatever story is taking place. That’s a great luxury for Kohan, and she does precisely what any good writer would in such a situation — she toys with it. Season three indeed features some big risks, taking an unnerving but creatively exciting proposition — that any of these beloved characters could be out — and running with it.
Everything viewers love about “Orange” appears to be there in this third season: the flashbacks that always reveal a little more about a character than we thought we knew; the humorous situations, deftly undercut with melancholy. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the season premiere (written by Kohan), which resets the status at Litchfield while hitching the main story to Mother’s Day, allowing Kohan to zip in and out of the lives of many characters at once.
Sam Woolf, We Got This Covered
Season 3 gets back to these simple pleasures in the absence of a singular antagonistic force. Vee may be gone, but life behind bars goes on. There’s a whole host of new problems that those running and rundown by Litchfield are dealing with this year, but they’re carefully woven into the novelistic approach that the show uses for individual character stories. The premiere, “It’s the Great Blumpkin, Charlie Brown,” picks up with the inmates on Mother’s Day, and smartly uses the occasion to let us get reacquainted. From there, the biggest plot point of the season is mostly kept hidden from the larger prison population: Litchfield needs to be bought, or it’s going to be shuttered.
The changes that would come with privatization add interesting new wrinkles to the show’s politically and socially conscious perspective. While this does somewhat enhance the “Wire” vibes Season 2 tapped into, Season 3 really has more in common with “Lost.” There’s no smoke monster or polar bear rampaging through the yard (though an important character does mysteriously disappear after episode 2), but the show’s arch sense of storytelling opens many characters up to seeking answers and comfort in a higher power. More often than religion or God, it’s maternal forces that are binding all these people together, as childhood and adulthood reflect back on one another in surprising and long-lasting ways.
Season 3’s biggest hindrance thus far is that, like “Lost,” the original structural conceit of the series is starting to feel like a vestigial organ. Four of the six flashbacks in the first half of the season focus on character backstories we haven’t explored yet, but just as these reveals in Season 2 were a step down from what we got in Season 1, Season 3’s make for further diminished returns. The flashbacks initially toed the tricky line of only partially explaining the characters as we knew them in the present. By moving into tertiary cast members with less shades to their personalities, the jumps back in time either too neatly wrap up the character’s life story or lack impact.
If “Law & Order” was television ripped from the front pages of the New York Post, then Orange Is the New Black (whose third season debuts June 12 on Netflix) is ripped from the op-ed pages of The New York Times. Subjects up for discussion include the trendiness of red velvet cake, the novels of Jonathan Franzen, and whether lingerie is empowering. Piper, of course, is the ultimate cliche of the rich white girl: She is in prison because of a lesbian college fling, and her sentence interrupts her plans for the development of a soap line. The whole of Orange Is the New Black is itself a kind of op-ed piece—a very long, very detailed op-ed on the subject of the disgraceful state of the American prison system.
The third season applies this technique of idea television more broadly than previous seasons. In the opening episode, Mother’s Day is underway, and the kaleidoscopic range of characters provides a variety of different perspectives on the reality of being a mother. It reminded me, automatically, of Meghan Daum’s new book, “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed,” and the debates that have swirled around it. How are people judged for being mothers? How are people judged by their choice not to be mothers? What about people who claim they don’t want to be mothers in their twenties but then change their minds in the their thirties? Is motherhood compatible with being a working person? And so on.
What Kohan does is take that debate, which is conducted mostly within the confines of the upper middle class, and transfer it to the world of the racially diverse underclass. And the result is fascinating, because the questions are so different. For the poor, motherhood is often not a choice they think through; it is a fate, which is both glorious and soul-destroying. Life, for them, is not a series of decisions, but of events and moments which come at them. For the people who write op-eds, the privileged ones, choice is the defining feature of our moment. In “the real world” that these writers attempt to think through, choice is ephemeral at best. That episode provides an entirely different perspective on the debate that raged over motherhood after Daum’s book: For most women, having a baby isn’t a lifestyle question. It’s something more and less.
Emily Ambash, Cut Print Film
In spite of dark situations and relationship drama, many of the prisoners seem ready to accept where they are and instead focus on the future, their own self-identification, and what they need to do to respect themselves. This season, while definitely looking at people’s faith in each other, seems built on the idea that one isn’t defined by one’s situation; what matters is how someone reacts to changing circumstances and the lack of a stable sense of self. Do we need others to see us a certain way in order to define ourselves? Can we find ourselves without others? What if others don’t see us as we want to be seen? These questions not only cause a great deal of soul-searching but also allow for a bit more levity in Season 3. To be ourselves, maybe we have to embrace the weirder parts of ourselves, realize what makes us unique, and learn to find others that will see those elements. Inevitably, the characters’ self-reflection and exploration of new friendships leads to interesting dynamics between different groups of inmates. And, with this diverse a set of characters, that means things get funny — and snarky — pretty often.