Warning: Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen seasons one and two.
When last we visited the inmates from Litchfield Prison, the evil Yvonne (Vee) Parker was turned into a hood ornament for a runaway van driven by Miss Rosa who was heading off into the sunset to live her final days. The granting of a dying wish while killing off the bad guy was symbolic of a chaotic season two of “Orange Is the New Black” in which juxtaposed relationships went through turmoil with a mix of dark humor and heavy pathos.
Season three of “OITNB,” judged by the first six of 13 episodes available for screening, is a logical next step in a story arc that may be another year away from reaching its peak. “OITNB” evolves from a federated collection of individual stories into more of a community where the characters’ differences create a mashup of tension and camaraderie. The dramatic pendulum swing back and forth without warning where heroes become villains, villains become tragic figures, and any semblance of innocence evaporates into the cold Upstate New York air.
Without divulging any major plot points, what faithful viewers (and those who recently binged on seasons one and two) can look forward to are prisoner backstories more seamlessly woven into the fabric of the narrative. In previous seasons, the “how did she get there” tales occasionally seemed forced; in season three, those same threads take on a cinematic, near-metaphoric quality as part of the episode plot-lines. Two of the standpoint (and generally heartbreaking) character rewinds are that of Carrie “Big Boo” Black (the ever-brilliant Lea DeLaria) and the somnolent Chang (Lori Tan Chinn), who heretofore has been a looming background character.
Overall, the cast members seem to have grown even more familiar with each other’s style, and the writers have taken notice by cutting the dialog down a small notch, allowing the actors to do more with the expressions and body language. Sure, there is plenty of wild mayhem in the first 46% of season three, but it flows nicely and never seems forced.
Added to the dramatic essence of “OITNB” is a sense of community and a greater sense of the collaboration of art and life. Community is tested when a major character — one who has always provided a common ground between many warring factions — is sent off to maximum security. Adding the feeling from a few of her loyalists that Vee couldn’t possible be dead, some stunning scenes of unexpected interpersonal warmth prove the Netflix show to be worth of its countless adoring fans. The treatment of LGBT issues and racial tension are amped up a few notches in season three; whether that was intention, given the times, is a fact that remains a mystery.
In the first half-dozen episodes, we find new additions to the cast including Academy-Award winner Mary Steenburgen, Patricia Kalember, Blair Brown (she of the classic TV show, “Molly Brown”), and Lori Petty. The new additions are added carefully and with no disruption to the existing chemistry that has taken two years to build.
With 26 episode under its belt, “Orange is the New Black” is close to being on par with some of premium cable’s better shows in the realm of “Silicon Valley and “Californication.” If the Netflix hit can keep its momentum up for this season and next — continuing to add depth and tension to its story lines — it may achieve “Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “Deadwood,” “True Detective,” and “Nurse Jackie” status.
That’s a really big if.