Pre-premiere renewals were once a big deal in the television industry, the ultimate demonstration of a network’s investment in a television show, ratings and reviews be damned. But committing to another season before a season premiere has become so commonplace, it no longer packs the symbolic punch it once did. Leave it to Netflix, the television industry’s tireless disruptor, to up the ante. Over four months ahead of the fourth season premiere of Orange Is The New Black—rumored to be Netflix’s most popular original series—the streaming service renewed the show for three more years. Were it any other show, say House Of Cards, that would be a chilling development and a harbinger of a creatively diminished future. But Orange is a thing unto itself, and based on the brilliant fourth season, it’s sturdy enough to hold up for years to come.
Orange’s singularity stems from its uncommon ability to be completely character-driven without relying too heavily on any one character. It’s no longer a show about Piper (Taylor Schilling), the former babe in the woods who introduced the audience to the stultifying life inside Litchfield Penitentiary. In season four, the ongoing effort to democratize Orange pays greater dividends than ever. The season premiere feels overstuffed, and with an influx of new prisoners coming into Litchfield, viewers could initially be as uneasy with the overpopulation problem as the inmates. But once the show establishes its new rhythm, one in which it’s impossible to guess who or what the next scene will consist of, Orange is thrillingly off-kilter. Creator Jenji Kohan has long excelled at upending narrative expectations, and Orange’s egalitarian approach to its characters means the plot could ricochet in another direction at any given moment.
Like Game Of Thrones, Orange can be daunting in its sheer scope. But because its stories are centralized to Litchfield and its racially based factions, every story has impact on the others, and there’s an overall plot consistency that Thrones lacks. Orange has also figured out how best to deploy the flashbacks that reveal the characters’ pre-Litchfield lives. The device began to creak in season three, when the show’s devotion to featuring background players led it down some blind alleys. In season four, the flashbacks are more pertinent to the present-day action, but the parallels between past and present aren’t belabored. They serve as further proof that before the women became inmates at Litchfield, they were already hemmed in by their choices or circumstances.
In the case of Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), Piper’s on-again-off-again love interest, the past and present collided in the season three finale, when a Litchfield guard revealed himself to be a contract killer sent to silence her. The aftermath of that confrontation looms over the season, as Alex forges unexpected alliances to help with her unique problem. Piper also strikes some new accords—to say she falls in with the wrong crowd is an understatement—and earns herself a new nemesis. More interesting than Piper’s latest Litchfield predicament is what led to it. Her plot from season three, in which she becomes the kingpin of an open market for panty fetishists, was a funny diversion, but a diversion all the same. Now, that comic-relief plot leads to developments are anything but funny. Because Orange takes place in a compressed community, every choice can potentially lead to far-reaching implications and consequences. No plot is an island, and even the most featherweight plot point can blossom into something with real stakes.
That includes the introduction of Judy King (Blair Brown), a lifestyle mogul serving a celebrity-sized sentence for financial malfeasance. Judy’s debut in the season three finale is so brief and casual, it doesn’t seem like she’ll play a huge part of season four. In a pleasant surprise, Judy steps to the fore almost immediately and has a huge impact on the Litchfield ecosystem. She’s not in the Big Bad role assigned to Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) in season two. In fact, she’s almost a kind of Big Good, a character who means well and wants to serve out her time in peace, but she’s too famous to be inconspicuous. If the character didn’t work, her outsize presence would have spoiled the season. But Judy is terrific, and Brown’s stellar performance defies gravity considering the character is a too-literal combination of Martha Stewart and Paula Deen.
The most significant unresolved storyline is last season’s staff walkout, which changes Litchfield in ways its inmates could never have imagined. In the absence of a villain in season three, the very concept of prison privatization became the foe as the inmates felt the impact of decisions made to boost profits at all costs. This season, the threat is far more tangible. Litchfield’s staff of correctional officers is replaced with a new crew led by an authoritarian taskmaster who embodies the harsh policies instituted by Litchfield’s corporate overlords. The new guards create an element that Orange usually lacks: clear-cut villains. In its efforts to illuminate the women and administrators behind the inmate numbers and cheap suits, Orange psychoanalyzes its characters until the audience’s allegiances are hopelessly torn. But the new leadership is pure evil, because in the world of Orange, there’s no greater sin than to lack empathy.
The fourth season of a television show is a critical moment, a transition as easily and irreversibly botched as so many second seasons are. If there are cracks in a show’s foundation, there’s no way to hide them by season four. Orange is rock-solid, and Kohan deserves credit for designing a show that can conceivably run as long as a dinosaur like Grey’s Anatomy. And it probably should last that long. The only way to truly empathize with these characters is to spend as many years in Litchfield as they have to.