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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black: Season 3

The first season of Orange is the New Black was a delight, a show that felt hugely original and stuffed full of wonderful, complex characters.  The main hook of that first season was the journey of Piper, a relatively ordinary upper middle-class white woman who suddenly found herself in prison.  The Piper character was a terrific audience surrogate as the show explored the world of a woman’s minimum security prison and as Piper, and we, got to know the fascinating array of characters — inmates and guards — found there.  In season two, the Piper character took a backseat as the show dove more deeply into all of the exploring characters.  The season had a strong narrative thrust in the story of Vee, whose arrival at the prison shook up almost all of the characters.

Season three of the show was very enjoyable, though it has neither the excitement of discovery of the first season nor the strong central story-line of the second season.  At this point, the show seems to have settled into something of a comfortable, “comfort food” middle-age.  I continue to enjoy spending time with all of these rich, complicated characters, though perhaps the show has lost some of the creative energy it had at the beginning.

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With the return of Laura Prepon, who plays Piper’s on-again-off-again nemesis-slash-love-interest Alex Vause, I’d expected Piper to return to center stage this season.  But instead, I found her pushed more to the background than ever.  I am not sure whether or not this was intentional on the part of creator and show-runner Jenji Cohen.  Is Piper still supposed to be the lead character of this show?  Or have they decided that we no longer need this “audience surrogate” character and that the show is now less interested in Piper and more interested in the deep bench of other characters of so many ethnicities and backgrounds?  I’m not sure if Jenji Cohen has become less interested in Piper, but I certainly have.  Taylor Schilling does the best she can with what she is given, but I was not at all interested in Piper’s flirtation with new sexy inmate Stella (played by Australian Ruby Rose) nor her turn as panties-selling crime-lord.  Piper has always been portrayed as flighty, but both seemed like sharp left-turns that made it difficult for me to sympathize at all with Piper any more.

The biggest pleasant surprise of season three was the new focus on the Litchfield prison guards and administrators.  Who ever would have though that Caputo (Nick Sandow) — such a despicable figure in season one, masturbating at his office computer — would become one of the show’s most endearing characters?  The present-day story-line casts Caputo as the most level-headed, reasonable member of the prison’s administrative team, and his flashback episode (episode 11, “We Can Be Heroes”) provides even more reason to sympathize with this sad-sack, flawed but basically decent fellow.  The whole story-line of the prison’s being acquired by a private company provided lots of great moments, and reasons to sympathize with, the prison’s guard.  I also enjoyed the involvement of comedian Mike Birbiglia as the somewhat hapless guy appointed by the prison’s new corporate owners to supervise things on the ground.  The running story-line of the incompetence of the new part-time guards the private company hires as a cost-saving measure is funny and also horrifying.  Even Healy got a great story-line, as we saw him fumbling for some sort of affection from his “wife” and from Red, and threatened by the arrival of new prison counselor Berdie Rogers, who seemed much more able to bond with the inmates.

But season three wasn’t just about the prison’s guards and administrator.  There were some great story-lines in season three for many of the Litchfield inmates, as the show continues to make terrific use of its phenomenal ensemble of actors.  While the Vee storyline gave Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” a hefty dramatic arc in season two, season three gave her a much lighter — and very, very funny — story about becoming an author of pornographic fiction that quickly becomes an underground hit amongst the Litchfield inmates.  The story of Daya’s pregnancy finally reaches a conclusion as she gives birth and decides whether or not to give up her baby.  I enjoyed the introduction of Porn-stache’s mother (played beautifully by Mary Steenburgen) and the tension as to whether Daya would reveal the truth that Pornstache was not actually the father of her child.  I was impressed how Pennsatuckey — previously seen more as a villain on the show — was made a far more sympathetic character this season.  The story of her tough background, and rape at the hands of a new Litchfield guard, in “A Tittin’ and a Hairin’,” was heartbreaking.  While that was tough to watch, I very much enjoyed the unexpected development of her friendship with Big Boo.  These were not two characters I ever expected to be friends!

Red (Kate Mulgrew) continues to be one of my favorite characters on the show.  She had a great story-line this season as we saw her struggle to reclaim control of her beloved kitchen, only to get cut off at the knees by the prison’s new cost-saving methods for feeding the inmates.  I loved that the quiet Chang finally got a flashback episode (“Ching Chong Chang”).  The scene in which we see the incredibly creative way in which she makes her prison food palatable was one of my favorite moments of the season.  It was also nice to see Norma get some attention this season.  Her flashback episode (“Tongue-Tied”) was dynamite, as was the present-day story in which we see her gradually become a religious leader beloved by a group of the inmates, particularly Leanne.  It was particularly interesting to see the shift in power with her relationship with Red.  This was a great example of a background character from early in the show achieving greater depth this deep into the run of the show.

Less successful was Leanne’s flashback episode, showing her past as an Amish girl (in the episode “Where My Dreidel At” — a great title for an episode, by the way).  That was just too far from out of left field for me.

What started as an amusing subplot about a few of the women learning about a loophole allowing them to request a kosher meal — which was far superior to the regular slop-from-a-bag they were being served — turned towards the end of the season into a more serious story about “Black Cindy” converting to Judaism.  This was also a little too far from out of left field for me.  Adrienne C. Moore, who plays “Black Cindy,” delivered a phenomenal teary monologue in the finale about discovering Judaism, which was a terrific scene.  I just wish we’d known before then that Cindy was serious about converting.  Up to that scene it had been treated as just a joke.  Had we more gradually discovered that Cindy was serious, rather than having it dropped on us in that one scene, I think this would have been a more satisfying story.

The rift between Sofia and Mendoza, caused by Sofia’s feeling that her son had been negatively influenced by Mendoza’s son, was interesting.  It turned surprisingly dark at the end of the season.  I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see Sofia again after we saw her taken away to solitary in “Don’t Make Me Come Back There”.  That felt like a weird choice.  (Like the “Black Cindy” story-line, it felt to me that the end of the story was rushed at the end of the season.)  I assume and hope that we’ll see Sofia again next season.

In a similar vein, I was surprised by the way this season quickly dropped two characters who had been, up to this point, central characters on the show.  Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) gets suddenly sent off to maximum security in episode three (“Empathy is a Boner Killer”) and is never heard from again.  In the episode before that (episode two, “Bed Bugs and Beyond”) prison guard — and father of Daya’s baby — Bennett drives off and is similarly never heard from again.  That last minute twist at the end of the episode was a huge change of course for the character, who had heretofore been presented as loyal and honest.  I couldn’t believe that last scene, of him leaving the crib at the side of the road, was the last we saw of the character this season.  Did those actors just want off the show?  Will these characters get a better resolution next season?  I hope so.

Other comments:

Any scene with Caputo and Fig was gold.

Interesting that Larry (Jason Biggs) and Piper’s former best-friend Polly (Maria Dizzia) were totally dropped from the show this season.  I don’t miss them.  But, more please of Piper’s wonderful brother Cal (Michael Chernus)!!

I’ve commented on several story-lines this season that didn’t seem to resolve satisfactorily to me.  Add to this list the bizarre running subplot of celebrity chef Judy King getting arrested and sent to prison.  That the whole thing built to a weird joke in the finale of her arriving at Litchfield but finding no guards there to greet her made me wonder what the point really was of that whole story-line.

I loved the sweet story of Morello’s finding love through a pen-pal!  Her character took a dark turn in season two — and I’m shocked the show never showed any repercussions to her sending her new boyfriend Vince and his goons to beat up Christopher, the innocent man she’d been stalking! — but it was nice to see this character find some happiness, and the surprise wedding at the end of the season sure was lovely to see.

I loved the story of Angie’s brief brush with freedom, due to the incompetence of the new guards, in “We Can Be Heroes.”

I loved Taystee’s realization that, with Vee gone, she’s now “the mom” to the other African-American prisoners!

This might have been a slightly more wobbly season that the first two, but I still very much enjoyed season three of Orange is the New Black.  This show still has quite a lot of gas in its tank.  My suggestion to the show-runners for the future?  Rather than finding new, increasingly improbably reasons to extend Piper’s original one-year sentence in prison, let her be released and just continue to explore the lives of this wonderfully rich array of other women of various colors and races who populate the prison.  I could see the show getting many more seasons out of that approach.

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