Success hasn’t spoiled “Orange Is the New Black,” but it has encouraged some bad habits.
Netflix renewed the show through a seventh season, meaning there’s ample time to explore these characters. But the fourth begins at a too leisurely pace before gradually building toward a big, emotional finish.
Picking up where season three left off, the show has clearly entered a phase where Litchfield, the women’s penitentiary that houses its sprawling cast of characters, is an organic setting that trumps any one of them. Inmates can come and go, but incarcerated life goes on.
Along the way, the series delivers drama, humor and outlandishness, one reason it has been so hard to classify for award purposes.
To their credit, series creator Jenji Kohan and company cover an inordinate amount of ground this season. The various plots include the cruelty of the guards in this newly privatized, for-profit prison; escalating racial tensions; and Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) operating her secret panty selling ring.
“I happen to be kind of a big deal around here,” Piper says at one point, which is ironic, since the character who set the series in motion has receded into the vast ensemble.
Another strand involves a well-known TV personality and food doyenne, Judy King (Blair Brown, clearly relishing this meaty role) — a mash-up of Martha Stewart and Paula Deen. An amusing subplot involves inmates’ efforts to photograph her and sell pictures to the tabloids.
Alas, not all those plots are of equal interest. “Orange” experiences lapses in narrative urgency, especially during the first half of the season. Many of the flashbacks — a brilliant device initially, providing glimpses of characters’ lives before Litchfield — yield diminishing returns.
Wisely, Netflix allowed critics to preview the 13 episode season in its entirety (a first), since the final episodes are easily the strongest. Without giving anything away that hasn’t already been teased in advance, that includes administrator Caputo (Nick Sandow) struggling to maintain control and an incident that evokes discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Ultimately, Orange” remains defined more by individual moments than its ongoing story.
Thankfully, many of those elements are memorable. They range from in-person phone sex to both heartbreak and comedy surrounding Crazy Eyes (two-time Emmy winner Uzo Aduba) to the ever-quotable Morello (Yael Stone), who tells white supremacists, “I don’t think racism should be a group activity. It’s private.”
“Orange Is the New Black” has rightfully earned a place among TV’s elite, and die-hard fans will no doubt be eager to binge the show, But absorbing “Orange” all at once really isn’t the ideal way to consume it. Because during some of the lulls between highlights, it’s easy to become a little stir crazy.
“Orange is the New Black” premieres June 17 on Netflix.