“Orange Is the New Black” is back come Friday, a whole new season released all at once by Netflix to test your will, to measure your taste for instant or delayed gratification. (I have seen six of its 13 episodes, of which I will tell you nothing important, plotwise.)
I resisted the series at first. Possibly it was from an antipathy toward the translation of bad behavior into Hollywood notoriety, which seemed to be a thing for a while; possibly from the impression that we were only being told this story in the first place because it involved conventionally attractive white girls in a sensational setting, a high-class retread of a woman-in-chains film.
Created by Jenji Kohan (“Weeds”) from Piper Kerman’s 2010 prison memoir, it is the tale of a former privileged Smith girl, sent up, years after the fact, for drug trafficking and money laundering — ah, the indiscretions of youth — and her seasoning within the system, and the people she meets there.
Well, I was wrong. If the pilot episode played to my worst fears, what followed increasingly did not, as the show focused less specifically on Kerman’s alter ego — Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling — and grew more invested in the show’s many other complicated characters, ever-better written and always beautifully performed.
The new season is even more of an ensemble piece, with Piper absent (unless I blinked and missed her) from an entire episode, and her “journey,” as they call it in the trade, no more important than that of her fellow characters. At the same time, as an upperclasswoman now, as it were, a prison sophomore; the novelty of the situation is downplayed this year, to the benefit of the drama — her story is more their story, and theirs is hers.
When last we saw Piper, she was in the snow, in a sort of trance, beating the stuffing out of Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), who had come at her after a Christmas pageant with a sharpened cross. (An unusual moment of violence for the show, and more powerful for it.) The new season begins at matching high pitch, with a dark and dreamlike episode directed by Jodie Foster that moves the action outside the walls that puts Piper’s minimum-security prison in a different perspective.
It’s not quite perfection. Nearly everything to do with the character of Piper’s fiancé, Larry (Jason Biggs), somewhat based on Kerman’s now-husband Larry Bloom, seems problematic to me.
Whether set in the present or as flashbacks, his scenes (and those surrounding Piper’s best friend Polly, played by Maria Dizzia) drag the show to a place that seems beside the point; we long to get back behind bars. The fictional Larry seems created to be the slightly dull, often self-pitying “normal” boyfriend Piper acquired on the rebound from the wild girlfriend (Laura Prepon) who led her into a fancy life of crime. It doesn’t help that Schilling has better chemistry with Prepon.
Perhaps that may be the point, to make the outside world seem deluded and insubstantial by comparison to the reality of prison. But the extra labor is hardly necessary.
Similarly, in emphasizing the humanity of the inmates, their warders have been made to look, for the most part, pathetic, foolish or monstrous. That is remedied in part this season by a deeper look at the staff, even as some of the more difficult prisoners, like Uzo Aduba’s Crazy Eyes, are brought into better focus. (We get to see Piper as a child too; as in “Lost,” another purgatorial story of strangers stranded in an inescapable place, flashbacks fill us in.)
Indeed, this general spreading of sympathy, of going past stereotype to character — even with characters who began as stereotypes — is one of the best and most impressive things about the series. It matters that it is set in a minimum security prison, whose inmates are more luckless than evil, more preyed upon than predators.
There is tension, but of a quiet sort, and much sweetness. For all its crime-and-punishment underpinnings, it’s a story, finally, of what makes a community, and how we break out of our tribes and assignments to make a little human contact.
‘Orange Is the New Black’
When: Anytime starting at midnight, Thursday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)