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Orange Is the New Black's third season is the show's best yet

Just another day in the Litchfield lunchroom.
Just another day in the Litchfield lunchroom.

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.

David Roberts, climate change writer: I find myself in the odd position of disagreeing with lots of what my colleagues have said about the third season of Orange Is the New Black. It is my favorite season so far — and the things I like best about it are precisely the things other people are identifying as flaws, namely its slow pace and lack of overarching plot.

The way I see it, series creator Jenji Kohan made Orange Is the New Black because she wanted to accomplish two things:

  • Diversity: portray the full, rich humanity of people who have typically been invisible on television.
  • Politics: portray the casual cruelties and injustices of America's prison system.

In order to smuggle this kind of thing onto the air, she had to camouflage it in two different ways:

  • An upper-middle-class white protagonist: making the show appear, on the surface, to be about the tribulations and Lessons Learned of a pretty white woman.
  • Plot: adding some stock villains, epic clashes, and shocking twists to keep people coming back.

I suspect these latter two elements, which American TV audiences have been trained to expect, are what made Netflix executives comfortable producing a series with the former two. All praise goes to Kohan for pulling it off.

But in my opinion, Kohan not only cares more about the former, she's way better at the former. I enjoy Orange Is the New Black most when we're just hanging out in the cafeteria with its characters, listening to them BS about how words are pronounced, some weird species of frog, or food they miss from the outside. I could listen to Taystee and Poussey banter about nothing all day long.

And I'm most moved not by the show's big twists, but by the small dramas, the relentless, step-wise way the prison system corrodes the soul of everyone involved in it. The struggle to be a good mother behind bars, the transient nature of prison friendships, the way captivity makes both captive and captor less human — that's the stuff that gets me.

Consider the scene in season three's first episode, when Ruiz learns from her boyfriend that he won't be bringing her kid to see her anymore. There's no swelling music, no lingering close-ups, no tender, eloquent final words. It's fast, awkward, and brutal, and a hundred times more affecting for it.

Meanwhile, the minute Piper comes on screen, I lose interest. Her on-again, off-again romance with Alex is Orange Is the New Black's most boring subplot, by a wide margin, and her evolution from ingenue into hardened gangster is implausible in the extreme.

What's more, the bigger and more dramatic the plots, the less I enjoy them. Unlike apparently everyone else, I hated the entire Vee plot line from season two; she was cartoonishly evil and made the show cartoonish as a result. And my least favorite bits of this season are its biggest through lines: the Piper love triangle; the panty-smuggling; the ridiculous Norma cult thing.

Excess plot is what destroyed Kohan's previous show, Weeds, which began as an interesting character study only to be overtaken by outlandish twists, one after another, long past the point I stopped caring. (This also explains why I've never been a fan of Shonda Rhimes's shows — the characters just seem like pawns, moved around and rearranged in service of "moments" people will tweet about.)

I was worried Orange Is the New Black would follow the same trajectory, as Kohan started trying to top herself. But instead she's gone in the other direction with season three, easing back into a calmer pace and spending more time on characters and small-scale dramas. I hope she stays the course. The less plot, the better. (Somehow I doubt this is the kind of note Kohan is getting from network execs.)

Orange Is the New Black's two greatest strengths don't have anything to do with villains or plot twists

I should probably stop there, but since I'm a certified Orange Is the New Black fanboy I want to call out two of the show's greatest strengths, which season three has highlighted to great effect.

1) Real diversity

I'm a liberal in good standing, committed to racial equality, feminism, checking my privilege, and all the rest. But that's abstract. The fact is, I've spent most of my life in contexts (middle Tennessee, academic philosophy, energy wonkery) dominated by white men. In those contexts, other people behave how they behave around white men. It's not false or fake, necessarily, but it is inevitably conditioned. That's what it means to be part of a privileged demographic: You are the baseline, and others adjust to you. And like a fish in water, it's difficult to even notice.

One thing good storytelling can do is allow people to experience worlds in which they (and people like them) play no part. Orange Is the New Black offers a glimpse of prison life to people who've never been incarcerated, obviously. But it also portrays Latina women talking to other Latina women; black women talking to other black women; poor women talking to other poor women.

In the process, it highlights how very rarely TV does that. Though the level of diversity on TV is rising, it's still largely dominated by "the black one" and "the Latina one" and "the gay one," shows that take pride in looking like Benetton ads. It's rare for "the Latina one" to spend much time interacting with another Latina one, much less a few Latina ones, much less only Latina ones. So you get surface diversity without actually learning much about diverse subcultures, how they look from the inside.

What Orange Is the New Black does, like few other mainstream shows, is portray women of all colors, shapes, sizes, and sexualities — all these varieties so rare on mainstream TV — interacting with each other (rendering the Bechdel test almost quaint). There are white dudes around, on the periphery, but they mostly intrude with arbitrary authority or physical and psychological violence. They are not particularly interesting people. (Bennett turned out to be a callow coward. And is there a more convincing sad sack in the history of TV than Sam Healy?)

Without the pressure to be "the black one," representing blackness itself, the black women on Orange Is the New Black can simply be women, individuals with different flaws, habits, attitudes, and patterns of speech. The show explodes the lumpen category of "black women" (or "Latina women," etc.) and replaces it with an array of real human beings. That's what the series' opening credits are about: a stream of faces you never see on TV, each indelible and unique.

Roger Ebert once called cinema "a machine that generates empathy." That's what real diversity does. Putting black/Latina/transgender/whatever women on screen is not some kind of prize for those women, a favor someone's doing for them. They benefit from seeing themselves on screen, but they are not the only or even the primary beneficiaries. It's the other viewers who benefit, because it affords them a new opportunity to encounter those women as full, flawed human beings, thereby expanding their moral imaginations.

2) Real people

Speaking of empathy, it's extraordinary for a TV show with such an enormous cast to afford every single one of its characters a measure of depth and complexity. On network shows, it's typical for only the leads to enjoy that luxury (if anyone does), and even on fancy cable ensemble shows it's often a small handful of characters who are allowed more than one or two personality traits. But Kohan's appetite for humanity is capacious; she has abandoned the notion of "leads" altogether and pursued something more sprawling and egalitarian. Even characters who begin as caricatures — think Pennsatucky or Crazy Eyes — have been given pasts, shades and hues, and the occasional touch of grace.

And no character is a hero or a villain. They all have pasts that help explain where they ended up, but none is excused from responsibility. Gloria strives to be a good mother, but she's also hot-tempered and callous toward outsiders. Caputo cares for his prisoners and guards, but he's also passive-aggressive and ambitious. Dayanara is soft and kind, but she's also a wishy-washy pushover. Pennsatucky has a tender heart (who knew?) and a razor-sharp wit, but she's also ignorant and racist. They are not purely victims — they all make terrible, cruel, selfish decisions, one unforced error after another — but neither are any of them purely malicious or stupid.

Orange Is the New Black is unsparing in portraying the flaws and weaknesses in its characters, but at the same time it never allows viewers to forget that every character, in the right context, can offer kindness and compassion. Everyone is messy and self-destructive but also hungry for love and, if you can look past all the crap, worthy of it.

The best part of Orange Is the New Black is its compassion for its characters

To me, Orange Is the New Black is a feast of empathy. That's one reason I don't find the show particularly bingeable — when I finish an episode, I feel stuffed. I don't want to rush forward to consume more plot, I want to spend a day thinking about what it means that Janae was raised in the Nation of Islam, or whether Nicky deserved what happened to her, or why Sophia held on to sexist attitudes after her conversion.

I know Orange Is the New Black isn't perfect; some of its backstories are too pat and some of its plot lines too broad, almost slapstick. It doesn't always hang together. There are better TV shows, considered purely as art. But it's difficult to think of a show with a bigger heart, or a show that tries harder to enlarge the hearts of its viewers. I hope it never gives that up in pursuit of tweetable plots.

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

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