Netflix’s unique prison dramedy Orange is the New Black surges into its fourth season with energy and confidence, looking for all the world like another solid season of television. In many respects, it’s just that: strongly paced, rich with diverse, memorable characters, and performed and produced with its customary, distinctive flair. But this is the year Orange is the New Black, a show that has always tip-toed along the edge of transgression, finally crosses the line. My post-viewing impression is a peculiar mix of respect for its usual, effective execution, and disgust for its out-of-control messaging.
It is still a show that hasn’t run out of stories to tell, at least. The new chapter begins with a ramping up of the chaos caused by Litchfield’s acquisition by a for-profit megacorporation. To maximize revenues, the prison population is doubled, overcrowding the bunks and drastically shifting Litchfield’s racial demographics. Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) sees in this an opportunity to change the power dynamics; to protect her business, Piper (Taylor Schilling) semi-accidentally rallies a “White Lives Matter” movement in response. Even as these tensions escalate among the inmates, they have new enemies to contend with: a ruthless new wave of guards, led by hard-nosed disciplinarian Piscatella (Brad William Henke). All these new bodies in the prison cause living conditions to deteriorate, ultimately leading to explosive conflict.
I’ve long been wary of Jenji Kohan’s edgy sensibility, in which provocative shock tactics are used to blend scathing comedy with serious themes. Looking back, Orange is the New Black has never been entirely uncontroversial. The risk-taking nature of the series is surely a huge part of its mission statement. But when you’re in the business of regularly almost Going There, it’s possible you may actually Go There. Emboldened by its success, OITNB takes its frank, in-your-face approach to race to new extremes, confusing fearlessness to confront the issue with an inherent sensitivity about it. Alas, the headline-ripping traumas incorporated into season four’s greater story arc truly realize one of the show’s earliest criticisms: that it’s prison tourism, serving up very real suffering as voyeuristic entertainment for the more fortunate.
While I’m not convinced the writers have malicious intent, I do think they stumble clumsily across the line from critique into exploitation far too often this season. It’s possible to witness and still see it as a well intentioned examination of systemic injustice, but the messaging is open to deeper, squickier interpretation. Even as I watched in sympathy with the inmates’ plight, and with the show’s brutal commentary, I also felt dirty for ingesting it as entertainment. Part of me wonders if this was an intentional effect: perhaps I’m supposed to uncomfortably relate to characters like Judy King (Blair Brown), the Martha Stewart-like celebrity whose privilege follows her into the prison. The show does seem to be trying to paint a picture of racial double standards, particularly when the backstory of white male prison guard Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) shows him getting slapped on the wrist for crimes that landed black, female characters in the hell of Litchfield. Still, am I getting a message by watching this show, or perpetuating one? Suddenly, I’m not sure.
My hope is that the show can course-correct in season five, and wend its way toward a planned conclusion that mitigates the Gone Too Far edginess, and more importantly, injects some hope into the lives of these characters. Because there are so many great characters on this show, so well performed, and I can’t help but maintain some loyalty to it as a groundbreaking showcase for female characters and acting talent. But like Kohan’s previous show Weeds, which one-upped itself into absurd irrelevance, season four pushes the envelope with some truly repulsive decisions. The results are certainly thought-provoking, but also extremely off-putting. Can the writers rein it in enough to turn things around? The inmates deserve better, and I hope they get it.