Warning: This review reveals some plot points from the upcoming season.
Ever since its comedy-focused third season, "Orange Is the New Black" has grappled with tone. Those who loved the dark, gritty feel of the first two seasons may well be disappointed by the fifth season's continued focus on comedy. When you have a show like Orange that's all about social commentary, playing it for laughs weakens the punches.
Based on Piper Kerman's best-selling memoir about her year in a federal women's prison, the Netflix Original has since diverged from Piper Chapman's (Taylor Schilling) dive down the rabbit hole. Instead of that gripping take on one woman's struggles in a completely new world, we now follow the stories of Red (Kate Mulgrew), Alex (Laura Prepon) and at least half a dozen others. If anyone's the main character, it's Taystee (Danielle Brooks), who over the seasons has evolved from being a mostly angsty sidekick to becoming a leader key to the plot, with touching moments involving her care of the mentally unstable Suzanne (Uzo Aduba).
Creator Jenji Kohan teases out a plot involving a prison riot and the inmates negotiating rights. Also expect absurd revenge plots and music montages that really ramp up the cheesiness.
Unfortunately, what plot there is seems to serve a not-so-subtle agenda. We're constantly reminded of how dysfunctional the US prison system is and what can be done about it. Prisoners need to be rehabilitated with more education, healthier food and humane treatment. Where the first two seasons ran with this as subtext, nearly every episode this time around is obsessed with it, with characters saying things like, "They don't seem to care about our lives."
But if you're willing to forgive the heavy-handed social commentary and the comedy mixed with violence, there's something to be had from the diverse character performances and the absurd, Wonderland-esque subplots we observe as the Alices of this world.
Orange's dark rendition of "Bridesmaids" humour touts the snorting of ground coffee, Aleida's (Elizabeth Rodriguez) attempts at appearing on a talk show and a certain Management & Correction Corporation staff member pretending to be a counterfeiter -- these are memorable moments almost as good as Taystee and Poussey's book burial from the third season, a personal favourite. Plot stays in the background of scene after scene of comedic interactions between the inmates, from Flaca (Jackie Cruz) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero) creating their own YouTube channel, to Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and Morello (Yael Stone) taking over the medicine store, doing worthy impersonations of mad scientists.
Fans of Piper and Alex's relationship have some goodies in store, but they're few and far between, as Piper's story has been stretched thin since the series outran the source material. Other touching moments come from mothers traumatised by their children getting into trouble on the outside, and Brook (Kimiko Glenn) grieving after her girlfriend's shocking death.
Orange cleverly flips the perspective of those in authority, using a hostage situation to place guards in the shoes (literally) of the inmates: "Remember when you turned over our carefully made beds? Here's your taste of our humiliation."
This season seems like an antidote to the horrific treatment the inmates endured in previous seasons, a reward for those who've stuck with the show. Our favourite characters are fighting back, but the heavy message about prison culture is just that: heavy. We almost get the sense of an endgame, that if this show were to hang up its boots one day it would be with the system overhauled, showing us how things should be.
"Orange is the New Black" season 5 gives too many big messages to warrant a recommendation for those purists who prefer the Litchfield of old. Here's hoping it hasn't slipped so far from its roots it can't find its footing again.
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