When “Orange is the New Black” debuted on Netflix in the summer of 2013, the main narrative focused on the journey of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, “The Lucky One”), a privileged white woman who adapts and tries to survive a 15-month sentence in Litchfield Penitentiary, a minimum-security women’s prison. However, since then, the series has gradually broadened from a raunchy prison dramedy into something much more humanistic. Throughout each season, we’ve learned about almost all the individual prisoners via flashback sequences, giving us their backstories that are as engrossing as they are tragic. By humanizing these women as victims of circumstance rather than simple criminals, “OITNB” brings a nuanced perspective to the criminal justice system, which continues to be showcased in its fantastic fourth season.
While season four can feel overstuffed at times, it stands out against the previous seasons of “OITNB” by diving deeper into the lives of its characters and how they have developed over their time in Litchfield.
Reeling in from last season’s glorious finale, the season four premiere, “Work That Body For Me,” is a stunning return to form, as every facet of the show’s storytelling — the character work, the dialogue, the drama and the humor — comes into full throttle. After the Litchfield inmates bask in some fleeting moments of freedom in the nearby lake, they’re quickly rounded up back to the prison, where the aftermath of their euphoria is met with overwhelming terror. New arrivals are brought to Litchfield, causing a lack of resources, commotion and overcrowding. Included in the throng of new inmates are two of season four’s most interesting new personalities: Judy King (Blair Brown, “Fringe”), a TV personality cook, and Alison Abdullah (newcomer Amanda Stephen), a Muslim woman who becomes the roommate of recent Jewish convert Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore, “30 Rock”). Both Brown and Stephen play their characters marvelously, with the former evoking a sinister mix of Paula Deen and Martha Stewart and the latter generating an engaging, refreshing presence within Litchfield.
With these new introductions, the burgeoning racial and socioeconomic class divides among the Litchfield prisoners are also highlighted and subsequently provide a sharp social commentary. Racial dynamics have always played a large role in “OITNB,” considering its large cast of Latina, Black, and Asian characters. But a bitter semi-race war between Piper and the Latina prisoners, led by Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel, “Person of Interest”), and a petty, mean-spirited quarrel between Alison and Black Cindy prompts a thought-provoking discussion about how the grittiness of prison life can reflect the world around us. Particularly gripping is the show’s handling of racist beliefs, which attribute to the relationships between the horrible security guards and the Litchfield inmates. The prisoners are already treated terribly with the conditions they’re living in, but with the addition of Litchfield’s racist and misogynistic head guard Piscatella (Brad William Henke, “Fury”), things get very ugly.
Even with large improvements on plot and character development, the fourth season still struggles with some flaws, one being that the flashback sequences aren’t as emotionally potent as the ones from seasons before. The season somewhat glosses over some of its more compelling characters, Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox, “Grandma”) and Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne, “Portlandia”), who are demoted to recurring roles, most likely due to other commitments — Alex (Laura Prepon, “That ‘70s Show”) had a similar situation in the show’s second season. Regardless, the fourth season keeps on pushing boundaries with its absorbing storytelling and provocative plots.
At this point, “OITNB” has cemented its place as one of the most complex, well-crafted and entertaining television shows of the 2010s — and season 4 is its highest point. With its diverse array of characters — women of color, women with mental illness and women who are on the LGBTQ spectrum — the series is a defining example of how modern television shows should represent people who aren’t normally seen on TV. Yes, there’s still plenty of sex, drugs, violence and cursing. But the newest season of “OITNB” has demonstrated the show is less about one woman struggling against the harshness of imprisonment and more of a microcosm of our imperfect, messy cesspool of a society.