For the next several days, several of Vox's writers will discuss the third season of Orange Is the New Black. Before we begin, check out our review of the full season, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. Joining culture editor Todd VanDerWerff will be culture writer Alex Abad-Santos, deputy culture editor Jen Trolio, and more.
Alex Abad-Santos: I wanted to like Orange Is the New Black's third season so much, but … it is not off to a great start. I've stumbled through the first three episodes, and it feels like I've already watched nine. I've found myself irrationally resenting actresses I never thought I would, missing others, and dreading spending another hour at Litchfield Penitentiary (especially when I could be at SoulCycle).
The thought of slogging through 10 more episodes like the first two and a half — thankfully, there are signs of an uptick toward the end of episode three — is weighing on me. If Orange were a weekly show, I would have dropped out already. But the opportunity to binge-watch makes it feel like more of a commitment, something that's harder to ignore and let fade, because Netflix always reminds you to keep watching. I don't know if my fidelity will ultimately pay off; all of a sudden, binge-watching seems like a chore rather than a perk. But from the first three episodes, I'm kind of dreading whatever might come next.
My disappointment came as a bit of a surprise, since last year around this time I was the Orange's biggest cheerleader. Season two was a fantastic ride, unfurling in ways I didn't expect — Vee's emergence, Red losing her power, Piper not being irritating, Rosa being Rosa, everything about Figueroa. In my mind, Orange ranked first in Netflix's stable of shows. That spot now belongs to Daredevil.
As of its first three episodes, season three lacks the surprise and fire of season two. I understand that it's on purpose, that the show's writers and creator Jenji Kohan are aiming for something gentler this year. After all, season two was one charged emotional peak after another. Season three is where we breathe, right?
But the characters feel more like caricatures than actual people. Piper (Taylor Schilling) is whinier, Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) has more ticks, Red's (Kate Mulgrew) accent has devolved into a snarl, Sophia (Laverne Cox) is one-note sass, and Morello is more delusional. It's as if everyone is worried you don't remember them or where we left off, so the writers picked each character's most notable trait and blew it out of proportion.
It's like the show forgot what made its second season so good.
Like a haircut at Supercuts, early season three has given me a lot I didn't ask for. It all stems from the Piper and Alex romance. They're making up, making out, breaking up, having problems — just like they did in season one. Their hate sex is probably riveting for some people, but I see every minute of their romance as time robbed from another inmate's story. And so far, there hasn't been a standout flashback like Rosa's (Barbara Rosenblat), Gloria's (Selenis Leyva), or Taystee's (Danielle Brooks) from season two. I wish the show had saved one of those for this season.
But there's still some hope. I think.
Toward the end of episode three, "Empathy Is a Boner Killer," you start to see flecks of what Orange is now trying to achieve; it becomes clear that these women are not your friends, and that prison is indeed a tough place to live. That fact was a little obscured last year with Vee's relentless oppressiveness drowning out other characters' faults, and the constant power plays.
This season, with more attention, Nicky vies for your resentment, making you glad she's in jail and convincing you that Litchfield might be too kind of a place for her. Her arc is tightly written, and Lyonne turns in an appropriately abrasive, snotty performance.
I'm eager to see how Nicky's circle will respond to her absence. Morello and Soso, both of whom seem particularly cozy in jail, are in for a shock. And Nicky's departure might be the jolt they — and this thus-far brutally middling season — need.
Read our review of season three. Come back soon for more discussion.