Monday, June 22, 2015

Orange is the New Black: Season 3

Who knew that an online based serialized dramedy about women in a minimum security prison would become one of the most beloved and talked about new shows of 2013? Not this guy, that’s for damn sure. I thought it looked funny from the previews and planned to check it out due to Jenji Kohan’s (Weeds) involvement. Some minor glitches aside I thought the first season of Orange is the New Black was absolutely fantastic.

Season 2 was even better. We got more insight into not only the major players via Lost styled flashbacks, but minor characters as well (Lorna and Taystee were my faves). Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) was replaced as the main antagonist with the frighteningly unstable Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), twists and turns popped up when you least expected them and mucho drama, spiced with some gut busting laughs, ensued.

Season 3 had a lot to live up to.
Life in Litchfield Prison is carrying on as normal for Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) until her ex-girlfriend/drug running partner Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) returns for breaking her parole. Behind the scenes the prison is sold to a private company and the atmosphere begins to change for the worse for not only the inmates, but the faculty.

As much as I enjoyed the first two seasons I have to say that the exact opposite was my first reaction to this new one from the start. It seemed to just kick off at a very boring place and dragged on for the first two episodes before the tedium subsided and the usually impeccable writing came back to life. There was nothing interesting going on, characters talked about vapid topics and there was virtually zero conflict. It felt as if the writers were attempting to reboot the series to be completely honest. The repeat of the Piper/Alex relationship was lame, certain characters were pushed aside to make room for pointless new ones and the energy level was waaaaaaay down when compared to the previous seasons.
It took the removal to one of my favorite characters to finally prove to me why this show was so appealing in the first place - it pulls no punches and is willing to piss the viewer off to either prove a point or move the story forward. It worked. While I was sorely missing (name removed to avoid spoilers) I do understand that it was the catalyst needed bring some spark back to the show. I don’t know exactly what the reasons behind the rocky start were, but I was just happy to be enjoying the show once again.

This season even more of the background players are fleshed out in flashbacks. Some of my favorites were Annie Golden’s mute Norma, Lori Tan Chinn’s enigmatic Chang and Lea DeLaria’s always fun Big Boo. Most of the others were sort of cliché and uninteresting, especially Emma Myles’s Leanne. I mean, Amish? Really?! Were the writers already out of ideas at that point? The unevenness of these backstories, and the small little one shots we get of the other background players’ histories, address the largest problem of this season – way too much going on.
There are so many subplots, sideplots and subplots within subplots that it’s hard to keep track of it all (but the sci-fi porn stories cooked up by Crazy Eyes was the shizz). Most of the time I lost interest in all the shenanigans going on at any given time. And there are so many new characters introduced that are so friggin’ flat and useless that I wonder why they were ever concocted in the first place. Case in point – Ruby Rose’s Stella. Basically this character was pooped out of the writing room cornhole to cause drama between Alex and Piper. Mostly Piper. The problem is that there is nothing to her character. Absolutely no substance. She’s just there to get naked and be sassy. I absolutely could not stand her or understand what Piper saw in her to begin with. Ruby is kind of a big deal in Australia so I felt that she was shoehorned in to get some extra bang from the viewers down under.

Piper on the other hand… where do I begin? She is the main character of the show. Period. You can tell me it’s an ensemble show all you want, but the series started off with her going to prison and will most likely end with her getting out of prison. It’s about her adventures and experiences behind bars that ultimately drives the show. The fact that the people that share the space with her are all fun and crazy and interesting is a bonus. So why is it that she is still the least interesting character out of them all? The writers managed to finagle some likability out of her in season 2, but here she is back to being the self centered, clueless and annoying beyond belief asshat she was in season 1. All she amounts to are vacant stares, lame jokes and an infuriating naiveté. She does sort of get her shit together near the end of the season, but it’s too little too late.
The breakout character of this season for me was a surprise – Pennsatucky. The writers have turned this unlikable character from the first season, who for whatever reason transitioned her into a laughing stock for season 2, and did a complete 180º with her. While she is more than a little clueless sometimes, Pennsatucky has come around and has begun to grow in ways I thought she never would. When a certain injustice is put upon her this season the old Pennsatucky would have gone on a rampage. We get to see a different side of her that shows just how far she’s evolved. And Taryn Manning, who I’ve actually conversed with face to face at great length (she came to my house and let my friend and I interview her for our now defunct geeky internet talk show TOASTY!), just kills it this season. Absolutely KILLS IT! There is a harsh scene between her and Big Boo that made me cry. It takes a lot to make me that emotional, but all my buttons were pressed in the right order and I was in tears. It was one of the most wonderfully performed scenes I’ve seen in a long while. Just outstanding writing and acting across the board.

Every single one of the actors are fantastic as usual. You can tell that off camera the entire cast has a familial relationship and it works wonders on screen when everyone has such amazing chemistry. I can’t single any other actor out (since I have already done so with Taryn Manning) since they all are so damn good. Some of the newer actors aren’t included in that statement now that I think about it.
The plot about the prison buyout is meant to give the audience some clue as to what is actually going on right now in the Department of Corrections. The constant budget cuts, more prisoners added to already packed facilities, inmates being treated as numbers and not human beings, the corporation turning the prison into a sweatshop, experienced guard’s hours being slashed and incompetent part timers taking their place… it’s frustrating to watch because I know its true. This is one of the best aspects of this season. There’s nothing wrong with a little social commentary to go along with all the soap operaesque drama.

And I have to say that the subplot about the transgender character of Bursett (played beautifully by transgender actress Laverne Cox) is uncannily topical as well. With all the hubbub surrounding the emergence of Caitlyn Jenner recently I think that this was some crazy rad foresight on the part of the writers. Kudos to you!
But there is no overall arc for the season. There is no heavy like Vee in Season 2. No Pennsatucky in Season 1. All we get is a weird religious cult involving Norma, Black Cindy converting to Judaism (so she can eat the delicious kosher meals), Alex thinking a new inmate (the exceedingly screechy Lori Petty) is trying to kill her, Daya still dealing with her ridiculous pregnancy bullshit and Piper starting a kooky smelly panty business. It just doesn’t feel like a cohesive season. There is nothing tying any of the story threads together. It’s very episodic. Not a fan.

I am conflicted on the way the season ended. I won’t spoil it for anyone, but it seemed a little contrived and silly to me. And OH MY GOD DOES IT GO ON FOREVER! The final shots sort of compound matters  with an overly depressing series of happenings. Ehh, I want to discuss it but I won’t. Spoiler city. Sorry.
Overall this season is the weakest so far. It floats along with no direction 75% of the time, takes away some of the better characters and replaces them with useless ones and the writers forget there’s supposed to be humor from time to time in order to break up the heavy and sometimes forced drama. Extremely uneven, Season 3 of Orange is the New Black is a major letdown. While I did manage to eek some enjoyment out of a handful of episodes, for the most part I just didn’t care about the majority of it.

I hope The Wachowski’s new Netflix series, Sense8 (which I will review soon), can fill the void this has left behind. I also hope that the team behind this once stellar show can get their shit together and bring their A-game for the already in production Season 4.

2.5 out of 5 

RODCOCKER!

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