The best thing about Orange is the New Black—the enormous number of phenomenal performers—might ultimately be what makes it unsustainable as one of TV’s best dramas. After 16 Emmy nominations, some of the show’s biggest talents have been tapped for other high-profile projects: Danielle Brooks earned a Tony nod for The Color Purple, Laverne Cox has upcoming roles on CBS’ Doubt and in Fox’s Rocky Horror remake, Natasha Lyonne has racked up seven film and TV credits in 2016 alone. No doubt it’s harder to schedule shoots with busy actresses, so beloved characters like Brooks’ Taystee, Cox’s Sophia, and Lyonne’s Nicky get less screen time in season 4, and we don’t often get to see them sharin scenes. Sophia’s in solitary; Taystee’s isolated working as an assistant to Caputo (Nick Sandow). That leaves another round of inmates to fill the void. The season premiere opens where the finale left off—Alex (Laura Prepon) is fighting for her life while the ladies gleefully splash in a sketchy “lake” outside, and new prisoners are herded inside. Litchfield is overcrowded—and so is the show.
No other drama requires you to care about as many different characters as Orange does. That’s an ideological choice: It challenges us to remember that these women aren’t just statistics, they’re individuals with unique stories. But the constant influx of new people has the opposite effect. Aside from a shrewd Muslim inmate (Amanda Stephen) and a celebrity lifestyle guru (Blair Brown), it’s getting harder to distinguish one warm body from the next, and the newbies don’t inspire the same fascination as the original crew. Maybe we’re being forced to accept the revolving-door reality of prison life: Once you start getting attached to one person, someone else takes her bunk.
Like her cast, Orange’s creator, Jenji Kohan, might be overextended. While she works on her upcoming G.L.O.W., a 1980s-set wrestling comedy for Netflix, Orange clings to story lines that should’ve been resolved last season. Piper is still running her soiled-underwear crime ring, only she’s now competing with Maria (Jessica Pimentel) for the title of kingpin. Healy (Michael Harney) is still harboring an inappropriate crush on an auburn-haired inmate—this time it’s Judy (Brown) instead of Red (Kate Mulgrew). The one story that does get deeper with time is Pennsatucky’s (Taryn Manning).
Last season, Orange handled her rape with incredible grace, keeping the camera focused on her face in order to uphold her humanity at the most dehumanizing moment. Instead of using that trauma as a cheap plot twist, season 4 takes time to explore its aftermath, not just for Pennsatucky, but also for her rapist, Charlie (James McMenamin), who’s slowly realizing what exactly he’s done.
It’s a grim season, but there are still enough great one-liners to remind you why Orange has earned a best-comedy nod from the Emmys. The sound bites beg to be screen-printed on an orange jumpsuit. A personal favorite: “I’m not a prostitute. Not even if the guy’s kinda hot in a mean-dad way.” That one comes from Maritza (Diane Guerrero), who finally gets an origin story—and it’s a very funny one. There might be new stories to tell, but on Orange, just like in Litchfield, the OGs still rule. B