“This place is way too serious,” Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) complains early in the new season of Orange Is the New Black. “This place” is the maximum security facility at Litchfield, where Cindy and a number of other inmates have been transferred in the wake of the minimum security camp riot that took up the entirety of Season Five.
Or, as stoner guard Luschek (Matt Peters) so eloquently puts it a while after he, too, winds up in max, “I fuckin’ miss camp! It sucks stubble-covered itchy balls here!”
Will Orange fans feel the same way about Season Six’s new primary setting? Or will they simply be relieved that the riot is over?
Devoting all 13 episodes last season to that one story, which covered only three days in the lives of Piper (Taylor Schilling), Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), Red (Kate Mulgrew) and the rest of the women, was a polarizing choice. In some respects — raising the dramatic stakes, allowing Taystee (Danielle Brooks) to more intensely grapple with the murder of her best friend Poussey (Samira Wiley) — it was an improvement on what the series had been doing in middle age. In many others — particularly how much more awkward the series’ usual blurring of the lines between drama and comedy became — it was a chore to sit through. Perhaps not since Orange creator Jenji Kohan’s last series, Weeds, ditched its original suburban setting had a show made a big change in format that was so divisive.
Kohan kept rebooting Weeds every year or two after that. Orange Season Six, on the other hand (it debuts Friday on Netflix; I’ve seen the whole thing), feels stuck between a reboot and a reset. At times, it commits deeply to the harsher realities of life in max — harsher than some viewers may have a taste for, particularly with how much darker the real world has gotten since the show’s debut(*) — while other stories seem indistinguishable from the kind of wacky hijinks that were part of everyday life back at camp.
(*) Orange debuted in 2013, and for a while tried to stick to the tight timeline of Piper’s 15-month sentence, even if that meant that the show soon became a (recent) period piece. With this season, Kohan and company have given up that pretense; Piper still has a few months to go before she’s released, but there are references to contemporary events, like Puerto Rico being without power and certain Trump administration policies. You can’t blame a socially-conscious show for wanting to comment on things happening right now rather than things from an America that already feels ancient, but it’s disconcerting, like when Breaking Bad (which was set around 2007-8) slipped and made a reference to the raid that killed Bin Laden (which happened in 2011).
But Orange has always found itself pulled between its dark and light impulses. When both are in balance (Season Two’s arc with Vee), the series feels special, and like nothing else even within Peak TV. When they’re not (as was the case in the riot season), it can be hard to see how the two halves are part of the same show, for quality reasons as much as tonal ones.
Season Six is in that more uneven vein. On multiple occasions, I asked myself if I hadn’t had my fill of the whole thing, particularly through the emotionally brutal first few episodes that establish how bad things are for the riot survivors. And then there would be a great scene, or even just a reminder of how much I enjoyed spending time in the company of Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) or Gloria (Selenis Levya), and I happily kept going, at least until the next dark and/or frustrating moment.
The move to max splits the difference between a fresh start and a return to old ways. With a lot of the rioters transferred to other prisons, many familiar faces are either gone altogether or get only brief cameos, and a batch of newcomers take their place. Key among these are Badison (Amanda Fuller), a nasty little prankster who takes an instant and understandable dislike to Piper, and aging sisters Barb (Mackenzie Phillips from the original One Day at a Time) and Carol (Henny Russell), whose decades-old feud has infected the rival cell blocks they each rule. And the new guards are a cruel bunch, which can make some scenes tough to sit through; the show’s familiar gotcha pattern of having a seemingly happy development turn awful doesn’t play nearly as well as it did back in 2013. (And the flip side, where a good thing happens when you’re cued for something awful, feels more like wish fulfillment than it did when, say, all the inmates got to go swimming in the lake.)
At one point, Taystee declares of their jailers, “We’re locked in cages. They’re the animals.” It’s a powerful statement, but less cathartic than it should be given how the season is unfolding.
Keeping a critical mass of women at Litchfield allows the show to in turn keep around a lot of ancillary characters like Luschek and disgraced warden Caputo (Nick Sandow), and the more the old regulars get to interact, the more that max starts to feel indistinguishable from camp. Barb and Carol get one of the more vicious backstories of the series (and the only flashback this year worth the bother), but the season can’t seem to decide if it wants to treat them as hardened criminals or violently bratty siblings who got old but never grew up.
In other words, <em>Orange Is the New Black</em> is <em>Orange Is the New Black</em> again, for good and for ill.