Early in the new season of Netflix's “Orange Is the New Black,” a prisoner gets fed up with her counselor making assumptions about her.
“You don't know my story!” she bellows at him.
We know it, though, thanks to this remarkable and generous show.
“Orange,” whose third season premieres Friday at 12:01 a.m. Pacific, has been all about taking its characters – who are marginalized as inmates at a federal women's prison, and are part of a medium that's often marginalized or simplified its depictions of women and/or minorities – figuring out what their stories are, and telling them in as vibrant and human a fashion as possible.
Two years ago, the series started out by showing us the world of the Litchfield prison through the eyes of spoiled urbanite Piper (Taylor Schilling). This was on the one hand a safe move by Jenji Kohan, since Piper's background made her more relatable to the hypothetical Netflix subscriber. On the other, it was a bold one, because Piper quickly turned out to be the most annoying character on the show. Her condescending, myopic worldview wasn't an accident, but a clear and exciting design. Here was Kohan saying, more or less, Here is Prison Barbie. You know someone just like her. Maybe you would even react like her if you wound up behind bars. Now watch as I make you want to loudly tell her to shut up three to five times an hour, while at the same time I'm making you understand and empathize with all these other women she and you may have found so scary when she first arrived.
Piper was irritating, but it was by design, and in a way that made possible the amazing role reversal at the end of that first season, where her idiot fiance did a radio story on her time at Litchfield, all based on the stereotypical view she had of her fellow inmates when she just got there, rather than the three-dimensional human beings she and we had gotten to know since then. Somehow, Piper had become the villain of her own story for a moment, and even she was wise enough to recognize it.
With season 2, Piper went from villain to something even more surprising: supporting character. Suddenly, she was just one inmate among many, and flashbacks to the pre-prison lives of the other inmates went from an occasional thing to something happening in almost every episode. Piper had her problems, like dealing with the latest betrayal by on-and-off-again lover Alex (Laura Prepon), but they largely took place on the sidelines, while the focus moved to tensions between the black and Latina inmates, to the return to Litchfield of old-school gangster Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), and how her presence complicated the lives of Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Poussey (Samira Wiley), Suzanne (Emmy winner Uzo Aduba), Red (Kate Mulgrew), and others.
Some of that backgrounding of Piper came from Laura Prepon's absence for most of the season. But much of it seemed to come from Kohan recognizing just what an amazing ensemble she had constructed, with a few recognizable actors like Prepon, Mulgrew, Taryn Manning, and Natasha Lyonne, but mostly featuring actresses who had never gone very far in a business that was ambivalent at best about women of certain ethnicities and sizes. Here, Kohan could let a Brooks or an Aduba shine, or make transgender actress Laverne Cox so instantly vivid as unofficial prison hairdresser Sophia that Cox would wind up on the cover of Time for a story about the rise of trans awareness that shows like “Orange” helped create.
And above and beyond whatever social good might be coming from “Orange” – a show that doesn't flinch in depicting the crimes many of its inmates committed, even as it also shows you the lousy circumstances that put them on the path to committing them – you can see what a fun challenge this set-up must be for a storyteller. Kohan not only gets to subvert your expectations with someone like Suzanne, who's turned out to be far more complex than the cartoon figure the other inmates called “Crazy Eyes,” but she gets to pull obscure characters off this deep, deep bench and make them matter almost instantly. In the first season, cancer patient Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) was memorable only for that image of her bald head. Then, in only a few scenes early in the second season, where we watched her travel to chemo and bond with a younger patient, she became the damn beating heart of the whole series. By the end of that season, she was so important that she even got to be the one to rid the show of Vee, whom she ran over while making her escape in the prison van.
Prepon's back full-time this season, and Alex is having a rough time of it since, unbeknownst to her, Piper set her up for a parole violation. And while their toxic, ring of fire relationship gives Piper a prominence she didn't have for most of last season, she doesn't suddenly take over the show again. Even the more democratic second season opened with an episode featuring only Piper and Alex, before giving way to the stories of Taystee, Rosa and others. Here, to make clear what kind of show “Orange” has evolved into, the season premiere features lots of different flashbacks, as Mother's Day prompts various inmates to recall the relationships with their own mothers, or children. The new episodes not only continue last season's look at what it's like to be on staff at a place like this – particularly for well-meaning (most of the time) administrator Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) – but expands it, placing Litchfield in so much financial distress that privatization becomes an option.
Through the four episodes I've seen, “Orange” remains as sharp and funny and poignant as ever. And with each year, it becomes as self-aware and self-deprecating as the blonde woman who introduced us to the place. Lea DeLaria's butch inmate character Boo finally gets her own flashback episode early in the season, and when someone asks her how she ended up the way she is now, she dismissively tells them, “Sorry to disappoint you, sugar. Ain't no dramatic origin story here” – even as the episode is putting the lie to her words in a very small but effective manner. With “Orange,” it's never one moment that turned these women into criminals (in many cases, the flashbacks don't even show us what they did to get sentenced here), but a lifetime of mistakes and disappointments and circumstances too complex for them to navigate without stepping wrong.
In its first season, the TV Academy let Netflix submit “Orange” in the Emmy comedy categories, and it walked away with three trophies (albeit all in minor categories, including Aduba in the guest actress field). This year (when “Orange” season 2 is eligible), new rules were put in place insisting that all hour-long shows should be submitted as dramas, and half-hour ones as comedies, barring an appeals process. Several other hour-longs won their appeals and got to stay in comedy, but “Orange” for some nebulous reason didn't. I have no idea how I would ultimately classify it – I respond more strongly to the dramatic elements than the jokes, but there are so many gags of different stripes (including a lot of “Catch 22”-style black humor about the ridiculous way in which the prison is run) that it's not unreasonable in the slightest to call it a comedy – but it's one of TV's very best shows, no matter how you slice it.
In an early episode, Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) – yet another character who existed largely in the show's margins, yet turned out to be someone who could make the audience cry in time as she gave birth and tried to care for her baby in only brief visits – listens to some of her fellow inmates plan out all the things they'll do together when they finally return to the real world. She rolls her eyes and tells them that this place is all they have in common: “We are not a family. We're a band-aid. And once you rip it off, all we are to each other is scars.”
As with Boo's line, it's true and it isn't. “Orange Is the New Black” has made these mismatched characters into a kind of family, even if it can feel that way for us more often than for them. I'm very glad to be back in their world again.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
NOTE: There's really no perfect way to cover a binge show like this, but I'm going to stick with the approach I used last summer: every Friday (give or take vacation or other travel), I will publish reviews of two episodes, doing either one or three the final week, depending on how things are going. The way it went last year, most of you got ahead of the reviews by the second week, but it's still the only realistic way I can go more in depth than I often get to with Netflix and Amazon shows. So look tomorrow (probably around noon Eastern) for my take on the first two episodes, then come back the next week for 3 and 4, then 5 and 6, etc. One of the reasons I only watched four of the six that Netflix made available to critics is that I didn't want to get too far ahead of these reviews if I could avoid it, but we'll see if I have the willpower to stick with it. As I noted near the end of season 2, there came a point where I just wanted to see what was happening next, come what may.