Orange Is the New Blackhas gotten its groove back in Season 4.
After a sophomore season that was plagued by a conflict that led nowhere (remember Vee?) and a Season 3 that was mixed at best, the fourth season of Netflix's breakout hit matches, and possibly exceeds, its initial outing in terms of quality and binge-ability.
When Orange Is the New Black premiered way back in the summer of 2013, it felt incredibly fresh, telling stories the likes of which had never been seen on TV before. But now, in the wake of shows like Amazon's Transparent, Netflix's Master of None and even Fox's Empire, it's no longer considered groundbreaking to feature characters of various (i.e. non-white) races, sexualities and gender identities. Yet Orange continues to give viewers the sense that it's forging new territory, and shedding light on issues that aren't typical dinner table fodder.
Season 1 told these stories through the lens of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), an upper-middle-class white woman who was sentenced to prison for being a fringe participant in her former girlfriend's drug ring. Seasons 2 and 3 expanded the show's scope, exploring the back stories and present-day conflicts faced by other characters including the multilingual Poussey (Samira Wiley), perpetually smitten "Crazy Eyes" (Uzo Aduba), and mother-daughter convicts Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and Daya Diaz (Dascha Polanco).
Season 4 continues to broaden its focus, without shortchanging the characters we've come to know and love. The show deals with the very real issue of prison overcrowding, as well as the plight of trans inmate Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) as she withers away in solitary confinement while her loved ones desperately seek answers about her well-being. On the other side of the bars, through a new character from MCC, the company that manages Litchfield, the new episodes offer a depressing - though at times hilarious - glimpse of the behind-the-scenes bureaucracy and political mindset that goes into running a prison.
The new character of Judy King, played by Blair Brown, is also a welcome addition. While Lorraine Toussaint's Vee felt like a cartoonish villain who was shoved into the mix in order to force a rivalry that was ultimately pointless, Judy King's newcomer is more fully realized - and, not for nothing, is based on Martha Stewart, who actually did serve time in the prison on which Litchfield is based. King's character proves to be a catalyst for frank discussions about racism and privilege. (Let's just say that King proves to be more like Paula Deen than Martha Stewart).
But one of the biggest delights of Season 4 is seeing new alliances form between characters we're familiar with who haven't shared much screen time before. Despite the huge ensemble of actresses that Orange has, it's rare to see characters emerge from their own cliques and interact with others on screen. Think about what a treat it was to see the unlikely friendship emerge between Big Boo (Lea Delaria) and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) last season. In Season 4, those types of relationships continue to flourish, with surprising connections formed between characters like Alex (Laura Prepon) and Red (Kate Mulgrew), and Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Caputo (Nick Sandow). (Yep, you read that last one right.)
But what about Piper, you might ask? Just kidding - no one is asking that question. Orange producers have seemingly come to terms with the fact that Piper is one of Litchfield's least interesting inmates. But, her storylines in Season 4 are compelling because she finally starts to suffer some significant, realistic consequences for her asinine actions - which, if you can believe it, only amplify in Season 4. And they go far beyond a slap on the wrist or a few days in the SHU. It's a much more believable (and at times, darkly humorous) depiction of what would happen to someone like power-hungry Piper Chapman in a real prison.
The cast and creators have remained notoriously tight-lipped about Season 4 during Orange's months-long hiatus, but one thing that those connected with the show have teased is that the new season is darker. While that's certainly true in some respects, Orange has also reclaimed its humor, in the early episodes at least. The first part of the season strikes more of a balance between comedy and drama than Seasons 2 and 3 did, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments into the more serious muck. Things don't really take a turn for the dark until the season's final hours, with a heartbreaking twist that will stick with viewers long past when their binge-watch is done.
In Season 4, Orange Is the New Black once again epitomizes the concept of binge-watching. It's the type of compelling TV that leaves you barreling through the individual episodes, while at the same time not wanting the season to end. The only problem with such a compelling run is the fact that we have to wait so long for Season 5.
All 13 episodes of Orange Is the New Black Season 4 will be available on Netflix on Friday, June 17.