“Orange is the New Black” Drops the Soap

Season three finds the Netflix original ditching the daytime TV melodrama and finally hitting its stride.

With season three of Orange is the New Black, creator Jenji Kohan seems to have finally (and mercifully) figured out that no one cares about Piper. That’s not to say that Taylor Schilling doesn’t deliver a phenomenal performance—she’s doing the best she can with what she’s been given. It’s just unfair to pit Piper’s snore of a personal life and largely self-inflicted problems against the personal lives of her far more interesting prison mates. Her biggest dilemmas outside the clink are getting caught cheating on her fiancé (the only character on the show less likeable than she is) and a failed luxury bath-care business. How is that supposed to stack up against the other inmates’ hurdles of mental illness, systemic poverty, and a lifetime of discrimination?

When Piper’s fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) runs off with her best friend Polly (Maria Dizzia)—the endgame of one of season two’s dumber plot points—it positions the show at an important crossroads: explore Larry and Polly’s relationship and its effect on Piper or let it all fade into the background. By choosing the latter and leaving Piper’s “normal” life out entirely, season three is able to succeed where seasons one and two failed. At last, OITNB gets its priorities straight, surrendering what would have been Larry’s screen time to characters that the audience actually likes (including several very strong new ones) and relegating Piper to the role she should have filled to begin with: a member of an ensemble cast.

Kohan makes another wise decision by foregoing an overarching villain—like season one’s Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) or season two’s Vee (Lorraine Toussaint)—in favor of several smaller conflicts, rescuing the show from the overly soapy direction it seemed to be headed at the close of season two. Just as Piper’s storyline becomes far more interesting when we get it in small doses, the dramatic aspects of the show are much improved by the relative absence of drama with a capital D. Season three’s more probable scenarios (well, relatively more probable) ground it in reality, raising the stakes while recognizing the show’s strong suits and shifting the focus from plot to characters.

The biggest problem with the Netflix model is that dropping an entire season at once eliminates the opportunity for feedback and leaves little room for growth. It’s unsurprising that it took this long for the show to work out its kinks, but it’s about time. This is the season where OITNB finally lives up to the hype. FL

Orange is the New Black streams exclusively on Netflix.


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