Is Orange Is the New Black incapable of producing two great seasons in a row? Based on the fifth season of the Netflix drama, which premieres June 9, it certainly seems that way.
It's disappointing, too: in the wake of Season 4 — widely regarded as the show's best to date — it's fair to say that expectations were through the roof ahead of Season 5, which picks up seconds after a bombshell of a cliffhanger that ended the previous season's finale. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for those expectations to take a nosedive.
All 13 episodes of Season 5 span just three days inside Litchfield Penitentiary, which is a bold choice for storytelling in any show; but especially for one where the characters are, quite literally, locked inside a single location — essentially creating a bottle episode that spans 13 hours. It quickly becomes apparent that that narrative decision was, to put it mildly, ill-advised. The story slogs along, with minutes and sometimes cumulative hours devoted to plot points that would have been better served by being depicted in a single scene, or even a montage. (An American Idol style diversion among the inmates and the guards comes to mind.)
Without getting into spoiler territory, the lingering question of whether Daya (Dascha Polanco) will shoot CO Humphrey (Michael Torpey) is resolved in the opening minutes of the season premiere. After that, the prison itself descends into "inmates taking over the asylum" chaos (in the most literal sense of the phrase), and the narrative follows suit. The result, in more ways than one, is a jumbled mess: as the prisoners try to figure out what to do with their new sense of power, with some trying to achieve a sense of order while others are content to create mayhem, the storytelling flits from one marginally interesting subplot to another, like a pinball machine on crack. That's presumably what happens when you have a certain amount of time to fill and only a limited amount of story with which to fill it.
The first season of Orange Is the New Black made a great case for Netflix's (then-pioneering) binge-watching model, with high-quality episodes designed to be devoured one after another in a single sitting, over multiple hours. But that model comes back to bite Orange in Season 5, which would benefit greatly from a one-episode-a-week release schedule. Viewers wouldn't need to worry about forgetting what happened in the previous week's installment because, well, not much does. All the previous seasons of Orange took place over weeks, if not months, and that has worked extremely well for the show and the story it's trying to tell. It turns out that 13 hours is too much time to cover the events of just three days inside Litchfield, even when there's a riot going on.
Even the flashbacks don't work as well as they have in previous seasons. Rather than being inserted seamlessly into the present-day storyline, the Season 5 flashbacks arrive with a clunk and then don't really go anywhere. The most interesting one, the back story of Muslim inmate Allison (Amanda Stephen), is a rare bright spot in an otherwise yawn-worthy episode.
And for the first time, Orange seems to struggle with finding a consistent tone. The show has always, infamously, toed the line between being a comedy and a drama; anyone would agree it's difficult to find things uproariously funny in prison. But previous seasons deftly navigated the bridge between tragedy and humor. This season, the attempts at comedy seem forced and fall flat, especially in the immediate aftermath of the riot and Poussey's suffocation.
If — and this is a generous, and probably undeserved, assumption — but if the point of the storytelling device in Season 5 was to enable the viewer to feel just how slowly time drags along in prison, then Orange Is the New Black has succeeded wholeheartedly. Season 5 feels like a life sentence.
All 13 episodes of Orange Is the New Black Season 5 premiere Friday, June 9 on Netflix.