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More laughs, less villainy: Orange is the New Black Season 3 review

During your freshman year of college, you learn the environment, begin to feel your way around, and are generally happy to be there. Once you hit your sophomore year, you’re more seasoned and know a few upperclassmen who can get you into parties. Junior year, that’s when you start feeling like you own the place, become numb to shame, and start to grow attached the little world you create.

Likewise, in its junior year, Orange is the New Black is roaming the TV landscape with enough temerity in the world it’s created to eliminate major characters just three episodes in, weaken the bite of one of its original villains, and make its only silent character central to an entire episode.

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Orange is the New Black‘s third season is its funniest, and that could be its biggest flaw.

Series creator Jenji Kohan said season three is “a little lighter than season two” at a Television Academy screening and panel in May, and that is an understatement. The writing is the best part of the series, and in season three, Jenji and her team de-emphasized the depressive plots from season two — no one gets beat with a lock — and replaced them with cynical humor. The result is a constant inundation of debased quips about Jesus’ homosexuality, evolution’s effect on oral sex and choosing meth over teeth. But the peak of season three’s writing and the single funniest scene of the entire series comes courtesy of poster girl Piper in episode 8 as she delivers an impassioned speech to rally a few prisoners to join her used underwear business. The speech was so good that it could have won her a serious investment from Shark Tank.

Orange is the New Black‘s third season is its funniest, and that could be its biggest flaw.

Season three spends 13 episodes promoting the notion of morality being adaptive instead of inherent. In episode 3, when new counselor Berdie Rogers proclaims the good she’s looking to do for the prisoners, Alex informs her even bad people think they’re good people. By the end of her explanation of how her former drug dealer felt he was the “heroin robin hood” by eliminating the Mexican cartel and reducing the price of pure drugs, it’s apparent this type of societal commentary is more than just “humming in the background,” as Jenji quipped during the panel.

Laugh while you cry

There’s a playful discomfort when watching season three. It never lets you feel one emotion for too long. This constant change is central to its binge watchability because you can rarely predict what will happen next. Once you feel warm inside at Red flirting with Healy, a second later she reveals she had ulterior motives the entire time. The best example of this appears in Marisol’s origin story from episode 5 where she sells watered paper as drugs to her former schoolmate Jason. He climbs to the top of the school and voices his grievances to the incredulous onlookers below and once he says he’s failing Western Civ, an anonymous crowd member yells “everybody’s failing Western Civ.” While you’re in the middle of chuckling, Jason leaps off the building. Seinfeld‘s creed was “no hugging, no learning”, and after season three, Orange is the New Black motto should be “laugh while you cry.”

Orange Is The New Black Season 3

The center of Orange is the New Black’s success is its uncanny management of its eccentric ensemble of characters and season three offers the most consistent stream of origin stories that’ll help explain the past two season for a few characters. We now know why Aleida is so icy with her daughter Dayanara and even why Caputo still practices with his band in his garage.

Owning your identity

While Piper Kerman’s book Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison still inspires every episode and Kerman acts as an executive consultant, Jenji spends the most time exploring the origin stories of the characters the show created. Boo’s heartbreaking last visit to her mother is a good example of season three’s secondary theme of owning your identity. But while Boo refuses to be someone she’s not, a young Dayanara (the pregnant inmate for the last two years) tells her scared and disapproving mother Aledia that she doesn’t care about becoming an artist, only a mom. 

Related: 25 quotes that define season 3 of Orange is the New Black

But not all characters are created equal and neither are every origin story. Norma joining a cult who embraced her muteness was boring and led to the weakest storyline of the third season: Norma the religion.

James McMenamin’s portrayal of Charlie Coates, eccentric guard, and red velvet cake supporter, who has an inappropriate relationship with Pennsatucky is unnerving. He’s a mixture between Pornstache’s depravity and Bennett’s misguided kindness.

As for Warden Caputo, Nick Sandow delivers the most riveting and visceral acting of the entire season. His deprecation and masturbatory tendencies are intact but in season three, but he conveys the despair of a man who has spent his entire life helping others with no appreciation. Sandow is so good at convincing you Caputo is a victim that you may applaud him for treating his guards poorly.

Keeping the drama (and villains) at bay

As Orange is the New Black consciously raced away from the perpetual gloom casted over season two’s plots it strayed too far from what makes its comedy so rich: drama. There’s very little violence this season and constant troublemaker Nicky is even removed from the show after three episodes. Then there’s new counselor Rogers, the bystander of the show’s conscious effort to tone down the drama. Rogers’ down to earth vibe and quick wit resonates with the inmates and makes fellow counselor Healy nervous about his job. But ultimately here character doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Instead, we only see her sporadically until she’s written off.

Orange Is The New Black Season 3

Without Lorraine Toussaint’s Vee terrorizing, there’s no villain this season. Instead, now we have a mostly unseen private company, MCC, which takes over the prison. MCC is a devilish manifestation of the prison industrial complex, but besides replacing the inmates’ food with pre-processed slop, MCC gives them new beds, better paying jobs, and incompetent guards for them to exploit. So, instead the episode-to-episode tension of the Red vs Vee civil war, we get a bunch of jackass guards upset that their hours are cut. I’d wager that no one watches Orange is the New Black for the guards.

Weeds ended up spiraling into a shell of its former self.

Season three does not drop the ball yet, but Orange is the New Black is in familiar territory as Jenji’s previous series, Weeds. After three seasons, fans are fully immersed and acclimated to the nuances of the world, and that means the pressure is on. Weeds ended up spiraling into a shell of its former self by moving the series from the insulated world of crazies fans grew to love (Agrestic) and making protagonist Nancy Botman reprehensibly unlikable. Piper’s now a hardened criminal with her own illegal business and a new acceptance of her manipulative ways. Will Orange is the new Black lose its way, veer further from the drama that balanced its humor, and lose its originality?

We are still having a great time, but if season three is a sign of things to come, Orange is the new Black‘s may end as a comedic parody of its first few seasons.