'Orange Is the New Black' Season 5: TV Review

Great moments and unevenness abound.

Jenji Kohan overhauls her acclaimed Netflix prison dramedy with high stakes, a compressed time period and audacious but inconsistent results.

Plenty of series go into their fifth season complacent. That's true even of some very good shows. You have a formula and an ensemble and an episodic structure and they work, so why mess with a good thing?

I would never accuse the first four seasons of Orange Is the New Black of coasting, but Jenji Kohan and her writers had found a thing that worked. You had Piper (Taylor Schilling) as a still point at the center, capable of being either bland or periodically dynamic. You had a cast of characters that could always be refreshed — freed or departing tragically, entering via transfer or sentencing. The injustices of our prison system and the people it persecutes disproportionately was an endlessly renewable theme.

After watching 10 of the first 13 episodes of the fifth season, one can surely give Kohan and Orange Is the New Black credit for refusing to play it safe. The fifth season deviates wildly from what came before it in terms of episodic rhythms, overall narrative urgency and tonal pitch. In some cases, the heightened stakes of the season help deliver some of the show's best performances yet and beats of staggering emotion. In other cases, a series that has reliably been careful to treat even the ugliest behavior with nuance pushes to such extremes that it threatens to undermine a lot of what came before.

Orange Is the New Black found the irony in the opening of Regina Spektor's "You've Got Time." We looked into the all-too-human eyes of these so-called "animals" and then the series itself worked to subvert our expectations of the Litchfield Penitentiary inmates. There were some bad people in Litchfield, but there weren't many animals. In the fifth season of Orange Is the New Black, the animalistic is brought to the surface, infecting even some beloved characters.

The extremes aren't without justification. The show's fourth season started with a lighter tone, but spiraled with the murder of Samira Wiley's Poussey. Since Poussey was as adored by viewers as by her fellow inmates, there was no way her loss could just be dismissed with a single episode of unrest and then business as usual. [Note to Emmy voters: Last season is the one eligible for Emmy consideration this year and it would be wrong to forget how remarkable Wiley was, especially in the last two episodes.]

We left off in the finale with Dayanara (Dascha Polanco) pointing a gun illegally brought in by one of the guards (Michael Torpey).

And that's where we pick up, too.

The fifth season, in fact, all takes place within three days, as the initial pandemonium of the stand-off progresses into a full-blown riot, complete with a hostage situation and the repeated splintering, reconstituting and re-splintering of the prison population as inmates begin to realize that they're no longer confined to racially proscribed groups, prison-dictated jobs and carefully regimented times for hygiene, dining and recreation.

As a show set in a penitentiary, Orange Is the New Black has always focused heavily on actions and their consequences, sometimes unjust and sometimes disproportionate, but always worn as an orange badge of shame. Much of the fifth season is about characters literally changing their attire as guards are disrobed and Lost & Found boxes are raided, but quickly realizing that their new normal involves both a lack of consequences, without "shots" or trips to solitary, and also the harshest consequences imaginable as people with already faulty moral compasses are left to their own punitive devices. New cliques are formed, new enmities enflamed and I guess we're supposed to think that circumstances like this conspire to bring out people's true identities, if we hadn't already been told that's what prison did in the first place. That Kohan and company's interest in the failings of the prison industrial complex is very much just a continuation of last season's MCC arc doesn't invalidate the growing outrage — and if you ever think for a second that what's happening onscreen doesn't have real-world relevance, actual headlines about prison riots and contemporary abuses of authority perpetuated largely against minority and low-income communities are referenced regularly.

Without spoiling specifics of what various characters are up to, I can say that grieving for a lover and best friend give Soso (Kimiko Glenn) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks), respectively, some of their finest material to date, with Brooks proving particularly outstanding as Taystee is thrust into a position as a political firebrand. Her role as prison den mother and her outside role as mother put Selenis Leyva's Gloria in a difficult position, and Leyva shines as well. The duo of Flaca (Jackie) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero) respond to an influx of liberated technology in a fashion that's both predictable and reliably hilarious.

The season also gives expanded exposure, sometimes just with more screentime and sometimes with flashbacks, to many characters who were underserved in recent seasons, like Vicky Jeudy's Janae, and to a number of the myriad background figures whose names I might not have necessarily retained, like Dale Soules' Frieda and Amanda Stephens' Alison. The writers also wisely expanded the role of Asia Kate Dillon's excitable skinhead Brandy, a character so different from Dillon's breakthrough role on Billions, but equally confirming of the actor's talents.

There's no easier way to make me happy than to reference Cindy's (Adrienne C. Moore) conversation to Judaism, and I'm always in awe of Uzo Aduba's commitment to Suzanne's tenuous grasp on stability. And Taryn Manning's evolution as Pennsatucky remains impressive even if the character's relationship with formerly abusive guard Donuts (James McMenamin) is one I can't abide.

Mostly, I adore these characters.

This season's flashbacks are, unfortunately, not very good. In early seasons, the flashbacks folded into the prison narrative like flawless short stories, only revealing their thematic importance toward the end. Too often this season, the flashbacks announce their exact purposes upfront, proceed in obvious ways and don't resolve with any enlightenment.

Some of the season's contrived character partnerships, like Blanca (Laura Gomez) and Red (Kate Mulgrew), must have seemed like better ideas on paper than in execution. Other characters, like Leanne (Emma Myles) and Angie (Julie Lake), are pushed to grotesque extremes that take them from people I loved being conflicted by to people I wanted to turn down the volume on. Very little involving the sadistic treatment of the guards or their reactions to said treatment really works, a reminder of how thin most of those characters were to begin with. As good as Brad William Henke can be, I'm just sick of Piscatella.

And in a season that involves torture of myriad types, a variety of life-and-death stakes, the highest of emotions and even an episode that's basically a slasher movie, my gracious Alex (Laura Prepon) and Piper are a bore for most of the time, which I know is an opinion previously held by a number of viewers. It happens not to have been my feeling, especially last season. Here, there was no point in the 10 episodes in which I wondered, "Where are Alex and Piper at?"

What the fifth season of Orange Is The New Black reminded me of was the point in Weeds after which Kohan decided it wasn't enough to have Nancy Botwin as a suburban drug kingpin and burnt the community of Agrestic to the ground. For a lot of fans, that was when they checked out on Weeds, but I remained a fan. Those subsequent seasons of Weeds were messier and less funny, and they occasionally wallowed in unpleasantness, but they were audacious. They forced viewers to re-evaluate characters, to confront the things we were rooting for our heroes to do and ponder the motivations of people we thought were villains. Weeds became uneven, but also more unpredictable and relied less heavily on easy irony. Those descriptions are all true of Orange Is the New Black in this guise. I admire the things it has on its mind and its refusal to fall into a rut. It's a show that still has over a dozen of my favorite characters on TV, one that makes me laugh hard and occasionally get sniffly. I both respect the shake-up and find it infuriating.

Cast: Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Uzo Aduba, Natasha Lyonne, Kate Mulgrew, Danielle Brooks, Taryn Manning, Selenis Leyva, Dascha Polanco, Adrienne C. Moore, Yael Stone, Nick Sandow, Jackie Cruz, Lea DeLaria, Jessica Pimentel, Vicky Jeudy, Diane Guerrero, Asia Kate Dillon
Creator: Jenji Kohan
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)