'Orange Is the New Black' Season 4: TV Review

Still hooked.
6/17/2016

The fourth season of the Netflix favorite impressively maintains the series' creativity and forward momentum despite its sprawling cast of characters.

By the fourth season of most top-tier series, there's not much left to say that fans don't already know — unless you're about to tell them it's not very good anymore. Usually the biggest risks take place in third seasons, when creators feel the need to shake it up. Fourth seasons, on the other hand, and on the brighter side, are often some of the best ever for those great shows that end up going five or six total seasons (more than six for a brilliant series is a complete rarity — see Mad Men).

So where does that leave Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, as it both heads into its fourth season on June 17 and is renewed for an additional three seasons, giving it seven total (unless Netflix and series creator Jenji Kohan decide there are even more prison tales to tell)?

Well, let's start here: Early episodes of season four are as compelling and entertaining and as well-written and acted as they have been for the past three, which is a tremendous achievement (particularly if it holds — which is likely, but not guaranteed).

That is, if Orange Is the New Black nails it again in this coming season as so many signs seem to suggest, it will enter into that rarefied realm of top-five best series discussions. And yet — in case you glossed over that first paragraph — seasons four and beyond are where greatness is made and catastrophic implosions tend to occur.

Having come off a wild and, yes, risk-taking third season that was met with tons of acclaim and left some intriguing questions to be answered in season four, it's clear that the series isn't flagging and still feels as fresh as the first season, but has expanded exponentially when it comes to creativity and ambition.

That's impressive and should take away some of the suspicion that Kohan will either get bored with the show or steer it erratically into some ditch (which was the fate of Weeds). At this point, she's earned a full pass on past mistakes and whatever accolades she's received are deserved.

No fan wants spoilers of any kind for a series entering a third or fourth season. What's clear is that, as in season three — perhaps more so — big twists and shocks are in store. Otherwise Netflix wouldn't have asked critics to sign off on a promise not to reveal a lengthy list of spoilers spanning 12 of the 13 coming episodes.

What doesn't qualify as a spoiler, and most fans will know it from previews, is that overpopulation in the now for-profit (and therefore increasingly poorly run) prison will be a major theme this year, and one ethnic group inside the walls of Litchfield Penitentiary will get a big boost from the influx, changing the dynamic inside.

Beyond that, expect more of the same and, given the warnings, more surprises (possibly not all of them the kind fans want, but ones that serve a creatively agile drama).

And once again that circles back to what's a fairly remarkable achievement for Orange Is the New Black. Remember that it wasn't supposed to be Netflix's poster series — that was House of Cards. But OITNB has been both a fan favorite according to the streamer (though it doesn't release ratings) and critically acclaimed. It has evolved into a show in which the initial main character, Piper (Taylor Schilling), has been deftly supplanted by an impressive, immense cast whose stories have set the hook in viewers and are the reason the series remains vibrant and entertaining without any clear sign of creative fatigue.

There are so many characters on OITNB that viewers often find themselves having to look up who's who, especially when previously semi-ignored characters get their moment in the sun (and yes, that happens again multiple times in season four).

In many ways, OITNB has mirrored HBO's Game of Thrones in being able to continually expand and service the cast, but has arguably done a better job of staying nimble in the process. It doesn't have quite the epic source material, of course, but its array of characters that either matter essentially or contribute greatly to the show's enjoyment are legion. An hour of OITNB still, after four seasons, goes by pretty quickly, and the series continues to be a drama that's easy (and built) to binge.

Servicing these multiple characters is a superb accomplishment for the writers, but it's not effective unless their stories, when finally told, are worth the wait. What can get overlooked, however, is how well the writers keep the plates spinning on "core" characters while simultaneously branching out. Again, this is Thrones territory, and that's high praise indeed, given that show's recent Emmy haul.

All of that is to say that there are very few series of elite stature where the possibility of peril seems so imminent and yet the creators and writers seem to dodge that fate regularly and press forward with stories as imaginative and moving as ever. So much could go wrong on OITNB that it's mind-boggling there hasn't been some kind of blown gasket, complete with fan kickback on Twitter.

Right now OITNB is essentially reinventing season-long narratives with aplomb when it looked, in the early days, like there might be a dearth of stories to tell, a clock ticking on freshness. Not only has the series defied the most dire predictions, even from people who raved about that first season, but it has become better every season.

Can it keep that up? Seven seasons is so incredibly hard to fathom in terms of pure, sustained excellence that we'll just have to wait until then (hell, it might not even stop then). But right now, in the early stages of a vibrant fourth season, you'd be ill-advised to bet against this dramatic juggernaut.

Cast: Taylor Schilling, Uzo Aduba, Laura Prepon, Kate Mulgrew, Danielle Brooks, Yael Stone, Laverne Cox, Blair Brown
Created by: Jenji Kohan
Premieres: All 13 episodes available on June 17 (Netflix)

 

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