I reviewed the previous three seasons in a block, and so have only actually talked about the show in broad terms before, never getting into specifics of storylines or characters. That makes this season a little harder to review, separating out a block of episodes from the rest, not least by time. It’s almost exactly a year since I watched the previous two seasons almost on top of each other (I watched season 1 a little earlier but didn’t review it separately) and I struggled to get back up to speed. It’s easy enough to look up some of the key facts of the previous seasons, but really getting back into the characters is hard, particularly when there are so many of them and the focuses are constantly shifting.
I think season 4 does stand out from the rest. The writers seem to be moving away from the use of flashbacks with a different character each episode and I think that’s a shame. I like the little snapshot of someone’s previous life that you get, not answering all the questions, but giving them backstory, emotional foundations and a look at what they’ve lost and what their lives could have been. The flashbacks were much shorter or even absent altogether and the choices of characters weren’t so good and I think that really impacted the depth and flavour of the show. I also think there was a move away from really showing that these people are criminals. Yes there are some cases of mental illness, bad luck or just stupidity, but most of them are genuinely guilty and fairly imprisoned and losing track of that is a mistake I think.
I don’t know whether the corporate overlords and irritating Linda-from-Procurement were an attempt to bring some comedy to the show again, but it didn’t work. Caputo has always been a borderline believable character for me, so on the plus side the ridiculous corporate politics made him seem a little more human, but only in comparison to their cliché ridden stereotypes, which isn’t really much to be thankful for.
The real problem is that the stupid characters (and I’m afraid I frequently have to include Piper in that category) play completely at odds with the seriousness of the situations unravelling in the prison. I have a horrible feeling I’m being entirely naïve that people running prisons couldn’t be so stupid and irresponsible as to allow these situations to develop, but by making some of the characters deliberately extreme and unbelievable, it undermines the serious point if that’s what the writers were actually trying to do.
This is the problem Orange is the New Black has again, and again – the uncertainty about whether it wants to be funny or serious. The subject matter covered this season (and also in previous ones) is horrific. Dealing with brutal emotional and physical issues. The way people treat each other (prisoners, guards, family in every combination) is horrible. You cannot and should not make light of that. There can be funny moments, everyone makes jokes in difficult circumstances and laughs at the insanity of situations, that’s what keeps people sane. I’m not saying I don’t want there to be laughter and humour, but it has to come from within the characters and situations, not introduced from outside artificially.
When this show plays it straight as a drama, it is incredibly good. The final hour, even just the final 10 seconds of the season is heart-stoppingly good. The quality of the acting, the intertwining of characters and storylines and the overall pacing of the plots are superb. The moments of genuine love and happiness among the prisoners are wonderful, the failures and hopelessness are heartbreaking. The show is so good, it’s only when it tries to be something that it doesn’t need to be that it really lets itself down and that’s just frustrating.