It’s always been the goal of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” to present the reality of prison through the lens of comedy. It takes some of the edge off, endearing fans to a big group of diverse characters, who the show takes time to develop through backstories and human moments.
Being a convicted criminal doesn’t stop one from being a person, the show says. Show-runner Jenji Kohan spends her time emphasizing that fact even as her series oscillates between goofy situations, and the real pain and danger of the prison system.
That danger is more real than ever in the fifth season of “Orange Is the New Black.” Hanging over the new episodes, which start with the inmates of Litchfield overthrowing the crop of guards at the privately owned prison, is the understanding that in the real world, none of this will end well.
It’s a tonal disparity that strains “Orange Is the New Black” at the seams, frankly. The show might be trying to be too real for its comedy stylings. Season 5 is at both the funniest and most heart-wrenching yet, and yet it struggles to contain those two opposites. “Orange is the New Black” might have become too big to handle itself.
The season kicks off where the last ended. A guard, Humphrey (Michael Torpey), brought a hidden gun into the prison mostly to feed his own sadism. By happenstance, inmate Daya (Dascha Polanco) got hold of it. Suddenly the balance of power shifts, and the inmates take over.
It’s a fascinating change to suddenly give the characters of “Orange is the New Black” some control over their own destinies. As always, the show bounces back and forth between characters, as they deal with their sudden infusion of power. The meth twins, Angie (Julie Lake) and Leanne (Emma Myles), immediately seek a drug fix. Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and Lorna (Yael Stone) play prison pharmacists. Pennastucky (Taryn Manning) and Boo (Lea DeLaria) hang out in the commissary eating candy. Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Blanca (Laura Gómez) go hunting for dirt about Piscatella (Brad William Henke), the villainous guard who spent all last season ruining inmates’ lives. Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) spend most of the season trying to stay clear of the madness, and continue to be vestigial to a show that has many much more interesting perspectives to focus on.
The heart and soul of Season 5 is Taystee (Danielle Brooks), though. She and her friends use the prison riot as a chance for protest in an attempt to get justice for Poussey (Samira Wiley), the inmate who was killed last season by a mix of corporate neglect, improper guard training, and Black Lives Matter-inspired fear on the part of authority figures. While everyone else uses the riot for a chance to let loose, more or less, Taystee and her group are the ones concerned with leveraging locking up all the guards for a chance at reforms.
It goes about as well as you’d expect. The trouble with inmates taking over Litchfield is that everyone on “Orange Is the New Black” is a bit daft.
The show spends Season 5 trying to balance the comedy it gleans from its characters being not terribly bright with the very real, very dangerous implications it’s playing with.
The oscillations are jarring — one minute, inmates are ready to barricade Pennsyatucky in “the poo,” one of the sweltering outdoor portable toilets that work like solitary confinement for the hostages. The next, Boo is playing defense attorney in a mock trial for Pennsatucky’s freedom, grilling Angie about how her lack of “Saved by the Bell” knowledge discredits her testimony. One minute, Taystee is making an impassioned plea for the Litchfield inmates to be treated as human beings by an indifferent system and a profit-seeking corporation. The next, the two inmates responsible for guarding the guards are snorting coffee grounds, and then puking their guts out.
“Orange Is the New Black” has always tried for this tight-rope walk, but with so many characters — with about half of them, it’s tough to even remember their names or any useful personality details — it feels like the show is sometimes forcing the comedy because it needs to give everyone something to do. It mostly serves to break up the time spent on tougher, riskier, more interesting issues the show is rightly portraying.
To its credit, though, all those jokes about dumb inmates (and dumb guards) doing dumb things when at any moment SWAT cops could storm the place and shoot everyone are pretty funny. The mock trial is a standout, as is the guard talent show inmates organize to pass the time. And the second episode, featuring backstory of survivalist and Litchfield “Golden Girl” Frieda (Dale Soules), is a treat.
But it’s when “Orange Is the New Black” is letting its characters be real people — just like the inmates want — instead of bumbling joke fountains that it really shines. Taystee’s struggle for justice for Poussey, Gloria’s (Selenis Leyva) conflict between taking care of Daya and her own needs in the midst of the riot, and Red and Blanca’s fight to find a way to prove Piscatella’s guilt: Those are the things that make the new episodes powerful.
Uneven though it may be, “Orange Is the New Black” Season 5 is full of high moments, both comedic and dramatic. But it also feels like the show is struggling as it grows ever more rapidly, unsure of what it really wants to be or how to be that.
Long gone are the days when “Orange Is the New Black” was the story of a sheltered suburban woman struggling with the realities of the prison system. But the show is still trying to figure out how to shed many of those original trappings. When it finds its footing, it really picks up speed, but Season 5 shows there’s a lot to “Orange is the New Black” that has been outgrown.