Prison as Playground

Darkness has always been key to what makes Orange Is the New Black great. Why is the new season so upbeat?

Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) in Season 3 of Orange Is the New Black.

Photo by JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Four months ago, the Emmys tried to answer the heady question “what is comedy” by avoiding it: Whatever comedy is, the awards show decided, it happens in 30 minutes. With this rule, the Emmy judges were hoping to solve the problem of “dramedies”—goofily named, artistically flexible, increasingly prevalent TV programs that mix both comedy and drama and thus resemble life, if not a pre-existing Emmy category.

Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, the third season of which arrives in its entirety on Friday, is a quintessential dramedy. Set among inmates at a low-security women’s prison, the series has addressed racism, solitary confinement, overdoses, and predatory prison guards among other sobering and sob-inducing realities while generally being hilarious and delightful. The show is a kind of sleight of hand, a wonderfully entertaining magic trick performed with cards that include incarceration, misery, mental illness, bad luck, poverty, and drug addiction. Orange is so reliably rollicking that it has always self-identified as a comedy, but because each episode is approximately 60, not 30, minutes long, the Emmys decreed it a drama.

It is in keeping with the spirit of the show’s law-breaking characters that, having been involuntarily deemed a drama, the show returns more comedic than ever—maybe too much so. I am a fan of Orange and plan to spend the coming weekend behaving like a devoted binge-watcher should: unlocking my jaw and devouring the new season whole. But based on the six episodes released to critics, it’s a new season that scampers closer than ever to making prison seem kooky and adorable.

Last season’s major story arc involved the machinations of the manipulative and mercenary Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), an unprecedentedly cutthroat character. Orange’s creator, Jenji Kohan, recently said that this storyline was so dark that the show had shaded toward Oz, HBO’s brutal prison series, and that the new season would be “lighter.” (I take Kohan’s point, but at its bleakest, Orange is still to Oz what cherry pie is to cherry pie full of gravel and razor blades.) The first six episodes of the new season bear this out, picking up a few months after the events of Season 2, with Litchfield penitentiary in equilibrium, the inmates calm, the management decent.

In the past, Orange has kept Litchfield from seeming too much like a same-sex summer camp via a variety of methods: introducing the rare truly frightening character, like Vee, or the out-of-control prison guard Pornstache; highlighting a neglectful, corrupt bureaucracy that dumps old prisoners on the street, all but encourages recidivism, and doesn’t care if prison showers spew sewage; showcasing a character who desperately wants out.

But Pornstache is gone, Vee is dead, and even the racist, meth-mouthed, evangelical junkies of the first season have mellowed into idiotic comic relief. Litchfield’s corrupt and indifferent warden has been replaced by the well-meaning Caputo (Nick Sandow), himself a redeemed sleazebag, who spends the first half of the season trying to save Litchfield from being shut down by the federal government. (It gets taken over by a private corporation that seems poised, in the second half of the season, to provide some of the missing Kafka-esque bureaucracy.) And characters who once longed to be free, like the show’s protagonist Piper (Taylor Schilling) or the irrepressible Taystee (Danielle Brooks), seem content to remain on the inside, alongside their loved ones.

In the new season, the depressing realities of prison are the subtext—but often only the subtext—of storylines played for laughs. Piper’s lover Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) is despondent about finding herself back in prison, only to have her agony assuaged by love and hate sex. Even-tempered Poussey (Samira Wiley) is so bored and lonely that she’s on the verge of alcoholism, which is staved off by some hijinks involving a raccoon and a shenis. Former evangelical meth head Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) and the butch lesbian Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) are so ostracized from everyone else, they have turned to each other, birthing a charming odd couple friendship in which they riff about whether or not Pennsatucky needs to brush her new, porcelain teeth. The new season has its share of bittersweet and even painful moments, but as new prisoner Lolly (Lori Petty) says upon arrival, “This place is amazing!” before adding, “We got off the van five minutes ago and we haven’t heard anybody scream. The walls are so clean!”

Three seasons in, just about everyone on the show is loveable. This makes for a thoroughly enjoyable, but not particularly varied or gripping viewing experience: the show tugs the same heartstrings, works the same funny bones. (This season, Taystee, Poussey, and Cindy’s pop culture banter includes jokes about Harry Potter, not NPR.) It’s an odd state of affairs for a series that, more than any on TV, is devoted to diversity. Piper Chapman, the white, affluent, beautiful, thin, college-educated woman who ran afoul of the law, may have been the series’ initial hook, but with each season, she has become less central, sharing the spotlight with the women around her, women of every color, age, size, and sexual orientation. This can still feel radical, as it does in an episode devoted to Chang (Lori Tan Chinn), the small, gnomic, older Chinese woman who has wandered through previous episodes of the series unseen even by her fellow inmates.

But Orange isn’t just committed to diversity; it’s committed to sympathy. It’s devoted not just to putting all types of women onscreen, but to making audiences adore each and every one of them. Orange wants to prove that women like Chang and Taystee and Big Boo and Daya and Sophia and all the rest—that is to say, all types of women—can front a TV show as easily as the Pipers of the world. But it increasingly refuses to risk the audiences’ affection by allowing its characters to be as wretched, mean-spirited, and violent as real people, let alone real felons, might be. Orange would rather make prison look good than make its characters look bad, a jarring streak of timidity for a series that once showed a self-identified bull dyke masturbating with a screwdriver. It’s too bad: as Big Boo herself would surely explain, the funniest stuff comes out of the darkness.