'Orange Is the New Black' Season 6: TV Review

Still uneven — and still full of great moments.

Featuring a pared-down cast and smaller-scale storylines, the Netflix series returns with a more focused, if not as hard-hitting, set of episodes.

Netflix's first great series — sorry, House of Cards — and a frequent favorite of awards groups, Orange Is the New Black has entered the post-hype phase of its life span as it hits its sixth season.

It's coming off a season that received zero Emmy nominations, a run of episodes that tested the patience of even devoted fans. Ambitious, chaotic and indisputably messy, the show's fifth chapter likely helped to pare away more than a few casual viewers.

Whether or not audiences are smaller going forward, expectations have shifted, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. With a clearer head, and no longer needing the show to live up to its reputation as one of the two or three best things on TV, it might be easier to just appreciate the things the show does wonderfully and not suffer so much with the things that don't work.

I liked the fifth season more than a lot of people did. It was plagued by too many characters, too many locations and too much character-jeopardizing sadism, among other problems, but it was a show still experimenting after 50 episodes, still willing to take huge intellectual and tonal risks. It had a feverish tone that was impossible to sustain across 13 episodes and, as it reached its finale, it pointed to the need for a reset.

Indeed, the sixth season provides at least a partial reset. The action picks up a week after last season's riot and concluding raid. Many of our favorite characters have moved from the minimum security branch at Litchfield Penitentiary to the maximum security facility down the hill. As authorities attempt to get to the bottom of everything that took place, including the not-at-all-tragic death of Piscatella, inmates including Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), Tasha (Danielle Brooks), Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), Daya (Dascha Polanco), Red (Kate Mulgrew), Gloria (Selenis Leyva), Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) and Frieda (Dale Soules) find themselves in segregated custody. One by one, they're given opportunities to tell their side of the story, to lie and to pick sides, with the possibility of added jail time and possibly even murder charges on the table.

As the women talk, or obfuscate, they're each reintroduced to the general population in one of three maximum security cell blocks, two of which are the fiefdoms of bickering sisters (Mackenzie Phillips' Barb and Henny Russell's Carol) who have been at war for decades, turning their respective blocks into rival armies. The seemingly random distribution of our returning characters across these two blocks, as well as the cushier third block, dubbed "Florida," allows the Orange writers the chance to strengthen some relationships, experiment with fresh dynamics and recalibrate the entire system.

The most important change is that roughly half the show's previous-season cast is gone, the inmates they played having been transferred to an out-of-state prison. They're mostly second- and third-tier characters, like the various skinheads who were memorable only because one was played by the spectacular Asia Kate Dillon. But there are also significant characters who, Leftovers-style, have vanished: Maritza (Diane Guerrero), Janae (Vicky Jeudy), Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman), Boo (Lea DeLaria) and ace comic relief duo Leanne (Emma Myles) and Gina (Abigail Savage). Some of the missing characters you'll probably miss. Most you probably won't. Some will, I suspect, be cycled back in for a seventh season. But this winnowing down of the cast was a necessary choice that improves the show, giving more time to the main storylines.

As usual, everybody will have their own favorite narrative. For me, Brooks especially shines as her character, Taystee, becomes an icon for the Black Lives Matter movement and, at the same time, a convenient institutional scapegoat. Suzanne becomes an afterthought as the season progresses, but Aduba is spectacular in the Jenji Kohan-written premiere.

The season offers good material for several key performers, among them Taryn Manning (Pennsatucky), Polanco — whose Daya faces consequences from last season in unexpected ways — and Moore, with Cindy's Jewish conversion remaining a personal favorite arc. I know it's an unpopular position, but I generally like what Taylor Schilling's Piper brings to the table, as long as she isn't the show's main focus. This season's arc, with Piper trying to correct her negative impact on the Litchfield community, is a good one. I don't love the kinda weird storyline around Laura Gomez's Blanca, but I appreciate the way the writers have fleshed out and expanded that character. 

In contrast, I'm pretty sick of Red. I also don't need nearly as much focus on the guards as this season offers. There are at least four or five prison employees who have romantic storylines, and that's excessive, even for a fan of Nick Sandow's Caputo and Matt Peters' Luschek.

The new characters are a mixed bag as well. Phillips is having a great time as a strung-out prison godmother, and she's matched by Russell. I grew to like Vicci Martinez's Daddy, a slick lieutenant in the jailhouse gang war, without ever warming to any of her bleached-blond underlings, thin replacements for the various addicts and skinheads we lost from previous seasons. Amanda Fuller's Badison never gets deeper than a compilation of badly Boston-accented cliches. She also gets one of several flashback episodes that suggest that format, so integral to the show's early seasons, has lost its purpose.

The block-on-block violence offers a welcome respite from the show's standard color wars. It's intended to be amusing that this season's core conflicts involve two sides with no real reason for enmity and feature participants who had no control over where they were placed and can be moved on a whim. This works to a degree, but yields a season that feels much more topically slight than what came before. Yes, there's the Taystee plotline involving Black Lives Matter, and the usual critiques of the prison industrial complex, but the result isn't nearly the pungent melting pot of intersectional outrage we've come to expect.

The story that propels the 13 episodes is more focused and on a smaller scale than what was attempted last year, which isn't entirely unwelcome. But it's not always clear which big issues and ideas the writers set out to address in the new season. As it stands, Orange Is the New Black remains a show so full of rich characters, ripping dialogue and great performances that I can focus on those things and not the characters or storylines that don't work.

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, Jessica Pimentel, Amanda Fuller, Henny Russell, Mackenzie Phillips, Vicci Martinez

Creator: Jenji Kohan

Premieres Friday, July 27 (Netflix)