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My Verdict on 'Orange is the New Black,' Season 3
June 25, 2015  | By Ed Bark

More comedic, less filling, Orange is the New Black’s main storyline in Season 3 ends up being the illicit sales of ripe inmate panties to a bull market of avid, mostly male sniffers.

Whatever your fetishes, this turns out to be far less compelling than Season 2’s reign of terror by Yvonne “Vee” Parker (Lorraine Toussaint) or the inaugural year’s immersion of tenderfoot Piper Chapman (primary series star Taylor Schilling) into an intimidating, unnerving new world.

Netflix began streaming all 13 episodes earlier this month. Watching a season in full before rendering a verdict has been my policy. So without being unduly specific on the “spoiler” front, here’s a thumbs up -- but only at a 45 degree angle -- for this latest look at life mostly inside the fences of fictional Litchfield Penitentiary.

This is a season in which two main characters are rather abruptly dispatched in early episodes -- and never seen again. Another prominent co-star from the first two seasons, Jason Biggs as Piper’s ex-fiancee Larry Bloom, is entirely left out of the new mix.

An overriding sense of jeopardy or menace is mostly missing as well. OITNB instead devotes multiple episodes to Piper’s burgeoning panty ring; a run on long-frozen, tasty kosher meals by phonily-Jewish inmates; and a devoted religious cult that forms around the silently manipulative Norma Romano (Annie Golden, left).

Those first two plot threads quickly run out of steam while continuing to run their course. And the overall plausibility of Piper increasingly going gangsta is stretched thinner than the panties being clandestinely worn by Sumo-sized Carrie “Big Boo” Black (Lea DeLaria).

All of the purloined pink undies come from a maiden prison enterprise, Whispers lingerie, instituted by the new private owners of Litchfield, which had been in danger of closing. A select group of inmates are paid $1 an hour for the “privilege” of making them. While at her sewing machine, Piper makes a new and increasingly intimate friend, the mega-tattooed Stella Carlin (Ruby Rose). Meanwhile, Piper’s incumbent lover, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon reinstated as a regular), is increasingly succumbing to fears that a dotty new inmate named Lolly (Lori Petty) is a hit woman dispatched by a betrayed drug-runner.

Season 3 also introduces several new prison guards, one of who is actually qualified. She’s Berdie Rogers (Martha Stephanie Blake), who joins the force before Litchfield’s new owners begin cutting costs and hiring incompetents such as former donut shop worker Charlie Coates (James McMenamin).

The redoubtable Mary Steenburgen also drops in for several episodes as Delia Mendez-Powell, who believes that her now incarcerated son, George “Pornstache” Mendez (Pablo Schreiber), is the father of pregnant inmate Dayanara “Daya” Diaz’s (Dascha Polanco) baby. The scenes between the two are well played, particularly during a truth-telling Episode 8. Schreiber has moved on to co-star in the new HBO comedy series The Brink, but does find time, in Episode 10, for a cameo with Steenburgen.

This is otherwise a season where assistant warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) comes to the fore more than any other regular character. His backstory is revelatory while his efforts to save Litchfield border on selfless heroism. But how much longer can he continue to be a patsy while others sup at the trough?

Among the inmates, Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning) emerges in full as more than a one-note crazy hick. Both her flashback life and current situation invite newfound empathy. Episode 10 in particular, the most dramatic of Season 3, dials up the pain and degradation she’s suffered -- both then and now.

Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba) also gets ample time in her new vocation as an author of a pornographic page-turner that has several inmates begging for more. This particular subplot fares considerably better than the “Church of Norma” stuff. Aduba continues to be OITNB’s most expressive performer, whether harried into churning out new chapters of her tome or inching toward the possibility of intimacy with a fellow inmate. That would be a first for “Crazy Eyes,” who joins “Pennsatucky” as an appreciably more realized character in Season 3.

Still, the season as a whole runs in place more than it should while also straining credulity and dangling too many red herrings. Its extended 90-minute conclusion is a full-blown, arguably overreaching effort to be both love- and life-affirming. One major character’s fate hangs in the balance -- but in a tacked-on way -- while Piper remains intent on being a “bad ass.” They’re left out of sync with an otherwise hug-happy, blissed-out prison population immersed in a prolonged closing sequence. The hows and the whys won’t be divulged here. But it’s all done to the closing strains of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

Some true-blue fans of OITNB may well be overjoyed with how Season 3 ends. But I suspect that more might be cringing at least a little. This is still a quality, provocative series that’s unlike any other and has already been renewed for Season 4. But much work needs to be done during the off-season -- beginning with restoring an ominous sense of disorder and peril in a place that’s gone more than a little too soft and soapy.


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