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Orange Is the New Black’s season 3 aimlessness might turn out to be a good thing

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

For the next several days, several of Vox's writers will discuss the third season of Orange Is the New Black. Before you dig into the latest round, check out our review of the full season, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date.

Todd VanDerWerff, culture editor: I generally agree that Netflix has no idea what to do in the midseason portions of its various shows' runs — it's a problem that bedeviled even poor Grace and Frankie, which I think is an issue because the middle of a story is the hardest portion to keep going, and Netflix offers its creators a lot of autonomy. Network notes are often terrible, but if the network giving the notes knows what it's doing, it can sharpen up a motivationless muddle right quick. For instance, I don't like everything on FX, but I always understand the intention behind its creative decisions. I can't really say that for Netflix.

However, I don't really think this particular problem is plaguing Orange Is the New Black's third season. If anything, its main problem is that it's trying to be too much like a season of "regular" TV. Of all of Netflix's drama showrunners, Jenji Kohan is the one who's most geared toward making satisfying episodes instead of epic seasons, and in terms of creating a fun binge-watch, she sort of shot herself in the foot with that in season three.

Dylan noted that Orange Is the New Black is juggling about half a dozen plot lines in various stages of completion, but it's easy to miss just how many of those plot lines last as little as one or two episodes, many of them spinning out of prior arcs. (Piper's underwear business, for instance, spins out of the larger prison privatization storyline.) This setup is far closer to the classical workplace drama model than anything else on Netflix — or streaming TV more generally. If you trace the history of the "lots of little stories that attempt to add up to a bigger one" structure, you can go all the way back to Hill Street Blues, the Hammurabi's Code of great TV drama.

What Kohan is doing here isn't all that remarkable. What she lacks — as Dylan astutely points out — is the singular, central thread that ties everything together and usually makes for a satisfying season arc. She's trying to do so with privatization and with season three's sometimes clumsily deployed themes of motherhood, faith, and exploitation. But when it comes to something to build a season around, a theme is a lot less viscerally satisfying than a major story thread, like a love triangle or a villain.

And, honestly, "viscerally satisfying" is one of the key components of a good binge-watch. I wasn't a huge fan of the first two seasons of House of Cards, but I couldn't deny that it was at least a little fun to watch Frank Underwood's unrelenting march toward power. Once that went away in season three, the show collapsed — into a bunch of nonsensical, disconnected plots. Orange Is the New Black hasn't gotten that bad, by any means, but it's easy to see why the season three finale introduces a major new storyline that will turn season four into something else entirely. (Incidentally, upending her series' universe is also a Kohan trait; the third season of Weeds ended with the show's central setting burning to the ground.)

And while the events of Orange Is the New Black season three aren't viscerally satisfying, I suspect they will linger. Think about it this way: The most singularly unified season of Breaking Bad is its fourth, which focuses on the battle between Walter White and Gus Fring. But that season hasn't stuck with me nearly as long as the looser, more improvisational season three, which dispatches its major villains at its midpoint, spends much of its time contemplating who Walter is if he's not cooking meth, and features an entire episode where Walter and Jesse try to catch a fly.

Breaking Bad's third season is also one of the best seasons of television ever made (and one that lessened my enjoyment of everything that came after it, even if just a little bit). I'm not quite ready to send Orange Is the New Black's third season to the same pantheon — especially since it isn't as good as season one — but it's refreshing to see the series trying to break out of its tropes before they solidify.

Read our review of season three. Come back soon for more discussion.

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