When looking at the array of 400-plus TV shows to watch, your eyes transforming into stressed-out spinning pinwheels at the options, you might wonder—as you organize your DVR and sift through your various streaming service bills—how we got here.
Most probably assume House of Cards was patient zero, the big Netflix original content experiment that had rival streaming services churning out their own TV shows quicker than a spreading virus—and cable networks soon catching the original content bug, too.
But probably the better sign that the new age of the streaming service, cable TV boom, and more TV than you could watch in a lifetime had arrived was Orange Is the New Black. Four seasons in—the fourth batch of episodes arrive ready to binge Friday—it may still be the best example of this Wild West of content opportunity’s great potential.
As much of House of Cards’ arrival was momentous, it may not have been as risky as we treated it. A proven story shepherded by David Fincher with Kevin Spacey as the lead, rabidly chewing the Capitol Hill scenery in a familiar—though exquisitely produced—Washington soap opera. The “binge” model was adventurous. Its status as “first” left it vulnerable. But there was no way this wasn’t going to be a hit. It was always going to be sampled, and likely devoured, because of the pedigree and because of the comfort of the content.
Then came Orange Is the New Black, and with it the purer mission—supposedly—of all these new non-traditional outlets.
It’s a show that played with tone, that didn’t look or feel like anything you would see on traditional networks. A show with largely unknown and diverse stars, because they’re the ones that made the most sense for the parts. A show that had to be sought out and discovered, because there was nothing to sell it, sight unseen, to the masses. A show that in its very existence became activism.
These new platforms were supposed to be a haven for the unique, out-of-the-box creations that didn’t fit in the literal cable box—the bundled networks we already subscribed to. The Cinderella Story success of Orange Is the New Black in its first season meant that audiences had been waiting for that haven. Now that it arrived, they were prepared to bask in it. They still are.
The influence of Orange Is the New Black is all over the television industry now, where you see not-quite-famous showrunners making TV starring not-quite-famous actors (though that’s largely changing) and saying powerful, challenging, confronting things about society and culture. You see it in Amazon’s Transparent and Hulu’s Casual, and now filtering into traditional cable television, too, with series like USA’s Mr. Robot and Lifetime’s UnREAL.
But the biggest benefactor of Orange Is the New Black’s breakout popularity and critical respect is Orange Is the New Black itself, which has grown richer, more surprising, and ambitious in its fourth season. That doesn’t always mean it’s better than ever—often it isn’t—but is just as admirable as ever. And after three seasons of getting to know the Litchfield inmates and the alternately wacky and terrifying universe they populate, the show has unlocked a perk of its now veteran status: there’s an ease to its level of entertainment.
That’s not to say that season four is comfortable. Like the three seasons before it, it relishes in being creatively undefinable.
It’s competed at the Emmy Awards in both comedy and drama categories. Its protagonist has gone from a fish-out-of-water female lead to an entrenched member of the ensemble. It continues to “say something”—about the justice system, institutionalized racism, queerness, femininity, privilege, and more—at an unignorable volume, but crafts it with unusual subtlety. And perhaps no show kindles comedy with tragedy together quite so explosively.
Season four picks up exactly where season three finishes.
In the an aligning of perfect circumstances, a hole in the fence surrounding the prison is discovered just as the security guards are staging a walkout over unfair labor practices. The prisoners are bathing in the lake in a rare moment of unbridled glee, contrasting with the two catalysts for season four's dramatic arcs that are unfolding simultaneously: a hitman is attempting to murder Alex (Laura Prepon) and school buses full of new inmates are being unloaded and admitted to the prison.
After their fleeting dip in freedom lake, the inmates return to the cells and a harsh new reality: double the prison population, half the resources. Seeds of turf wars are planted between the veteran inmates and the newbies. Beyond crowding, the pitfalls of an overextended institution begin to reveal themselves in unexpected and, commenting on our incarceration system, infuriating ways.
There are only enough work assignments for the original prisoners, who already held the jobs to make money. That becomes especially aggravating when the prison runs out of maxipads—the budget for "nonessentials" (let that classification settle for a moment) is the same, even though the prisoner count has increased. Inmates can buy tampons at commissary for $10, but that's only if you have a job—and if you've managed to save enough of your 10-cents-per-hour salary to purchase them.
Racial demographics band closer than before. Our well-intentioned hero Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) even ends up accidentally starting a white supremacist group—"White Lives Matter!" they chant—when attempting to retaliate against a threat to her illicit prison panties business. (Who knew that storyline would end up being so fruitful?)
Fights start happening. There's a looming sense of dread as tensions slowly rise, like you're winding a jack in the box and cringing while you wait for it to explode.
The season seems to be making, more than ever before, a statement on the human indignities that follow the push to privatize prisons and turn the inmates into inventory. A trip to what is known as CorrectiCon, a Disneyland for wardens looking to make budget cuts, is particularly sickening, especially as the keynote speaker outlines his mission statement: "Stop fixating on the days and start thinking about the years." The day-to-day life of these prisoners? Doesn't matter.
Give Alex's hitman storyline time. It starts to pay off in spades as more and more inmates get clued-in on what happened, and what measures were taken to cover up the deed (which we won't spoil here). It ends up being a particularly strong showcase for Lori Petty's NSA-paranoid Lolly, especially, whose spiraling psychotic breaks has her comic relief living painfully close to tragic.
The "backstory" episodes are still a thing, which puts a bright spotlight on the creative advantages and disadvantages of the show's extraordinarily large cast—which with the inmate influx is now, almost nonsensically, more unwieldy than ever.
Some backstories are a treat, like one featuring fan favorite Diane Guerrero as ditz with a heart of gold Maritza. Others you could aggressively do without. A backstory for Officer Healy? Really?
The sheer number of characters to juggle—there are new security officers added to the mix, too—means less screen time for the show's best characters and most talented actors.
Uzo Aduba's Crazy Eyes swaps last season's ridiculous tentacle porn arc for a hunt for a shower pooper. On the flip side, Laverne Cox's Sophia Bursett is absent for the first three episodes, which actually makes the character's presence more powerful when she finally does arrive—with heartbreaking vengeance—in episode four.
Daya (Dascha Polanco) and her mom, Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) share some of the early season’s most emotional scenes when Aleida finds out that she's going to be released early—and is terrified. How will she find her kids, or afford an apartment, or find a job as an ex-convict? It revisits the Taystee (Danielle Brooks) storyline from season one, where life after release proved so unmanageable for the former prisoner that she purposely got herself sent back in. Four seasons in, it's a necessary reminder of the real world that gives context to this unique one inside the Litchfield walls.
As for Taystee, she's a ray of sunshine as always, this season working as Caputo's assistant, both shining in her new responsibilities and also abusing them--she uses her phone privileges to find out if Beyonce and Jay Z are getting divorced. As for the new characters, the standout is Judy King (Blair Brown), the celebrity chef who comes in with loads of southern charm and a heaping spoonful of race and class privilege.
The season is as funny as ever. Piper has morphed from scared Bambi to the Hunter, and is hilarious while doing it. Adrienne C. Moore's Black Cindy is a treasure trove of witticisms. Our favorite? After being told not to "go there" by her new cell mate: "Oh I went there, bought a house, and moved in, bitch. And now I'm remodeling the kitchen."
But for all the laughs, there's no denying the show's power as a drama. A terrifying one. An unabashedly female one, but oh-so-importantly a universal one. The season drags at times, and not every new character is as captivating as the ones you remember falling in love from season one. (In fact, none of them are.)
Yet four seasons in there's something about Orange Is the New Black, at a time when most shows start to feel stale or repetitive, that still feels—and I can't think of a better word for it—special.
When there's 400-plus shows to choose from, that's no small feat.