'Orange Is the New Black' Season 3: TV Review

Orange is the New Black S02 Still - H 2014
Jessica Miglio/Netflix

Orange is the New Black S02 Still - H 2014

As impressive, confident and excellent as ever

Piper and the crew are back for more in Jenji Kohan's prison-set show, following a bold second season.

After becoming a breakout sensation for Netflix in season one, Orange Is the New Black stormed into season two with a surprise — creator and writer Jenji Kohan introduced an entirely new character to the already sprawling cast, and allowed that character, Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), to be a major force in the season-long arc.

What Vee essentially proved was that Orange Is the New Black (inspired by Piper Kerman's book based on her real-life experiences) wasn’t just a show about Piper (Taylor Schilling), the entitled white woman who was never meant to end up in prison but, hey, sometimes you fall in love with another woman and become a drug mule. It happens.

What was so impressive about season two was that Kohan deftly wriggled out of a potential creative jam (a story just about Piper flinching and then slowly adjusting to her prison experience didn’t have a lot of legs) and simultaneously took advantage of a creative opportunity (a brilliant, likeable, large and ethnically diverse cast that all kinds of fans had become attached to). Season two illustrated emphatically that Orange could be a true ensemble story, and that its biggest challenge — so many characters — was its greatest strength. Adding a whole new character for various storylines to revolve around ended up looking like a slice of genius when the dust settled.

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In season three of Orange, the main takeaway from the early episodes is that having all of these women back onscreen makes for a very welcome return. This is one of those rare series where the characters are so strong and the audience so devoted to them that their mere appearance sometimes trumps whatever story is taking place. That’s a great luxury for Kohan, and she does precisely what any good writer would in such a situation — she toys with it. Season three indeed features some big risks, taking an unnerving but creatively exciting proposition — that any of these beloved characters could be out — and running with it.

But not before at least acknowledging the loss of Rosa and Vee from last season and bringing back Piper’s love interest, blind spot and trouble-bringer Alex (Laura Prepon) — who was a limited presence in season two — as she lands back in Litchfield (courtesy of Piper in the season two finale).

All of the pistons are firing beautifully in Orange because, even though the Piper-Alex dynamic is back front and center, the work that Kohan and her writers did building up the backstories of everyone else last season means the show never lingers too long on any one (or two) characters. There’s a brisk efficiency in the early episodes of season three that make the hours fly by.

That’s no easy feat, since shows with huge casts that viewers are invested in — like Game of Thrones — can often get bogged down under the weight of multiple stories. But at least early on in season three of Orange, narrative strands ranging from Alex’s return to Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) experiencing increased mental confusion (and agitation) about Vee unfurl rather quickly, never leaving viewers feeling cheated.

Without spoiling anything, Kohan ups the ante for a number of characters — and even introduces something of a game-changer for the prison itself. And, yes, she also brings in new characters. This high-wire act certainly is impressive now, but it's worth keeping an eye on because plate-spinning is not every writer’s greatest strength.

However, everything viewers love about Orange appears to be there in this third season: the flashbacks that always reveal a little more about a character than we thought we knew; the humorous situations, deftly undercut with melancholy. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the season premiere (written by Kohan), which resets the status at Litchfield while hitching the main story to Mother’s Day, allowing Kohan to zip in and out of the lives of many characters at once.

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As the hour unfolds, everything seems almost lighter than ever (Orange was officially switched over to be considered a drama in the Emmy race), with lots of funny bits scattered about as kids visit the prison to see their mothers. And then, almost effortlessly, Kohan changes up the mood and reminds viewers that the bigger issues of Orange revolve around not only the causes of incarceration, but also the life lived inside and the toll it takes on those left on the outside.

It’s the kind of tonal shift that Kohan has never shied from and pulls off impressively here, giving the premiere more heft than the early scenes would have suggested.

While it always bears watching how well Kohan’s shows keep on the rails over the course of their run, season three of Orange kicks off as impressively, confidently and excellently as ever.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine