Once a television show has established how good it can be, it tends to fall into a pattern of being consistently entertaining, but can have trouble achieving the initial heights it once reached. I was blown away by Season 2 of Orange is the New Black, amazed that it not only matched the quality of Season 1, but even improved upon it. Its ongoing excellence was a really pleasant surprise, and made me even more anxious to see what Season 3 would bring.

What Season 3 would turn out to bring is exactly what I mention in that opening sentence: A show that is still better than 98% of anything else on TV, but that couldn't quite live up to the reputation of the seasons that came before it. Make no mistake, the stories of the people who inhabit Litchfield are still fascinating, be they inmate, guard, or management. I was giddy to see flashbacks for previously-tertiary characters like Chang and Norma. Season 3 also makes the smart choice to cut out almost every scene in the outside world, focusing on what's going on in the prison itself. No more idiotic time-wasting with Larry and Polly! Yay!

The main complaint I've seen from other people is that Season 3 moved too slowly, and lacked a central story arc. While I understand that position, I rather liked the leisurely pace this season took, and the smaller stories it told. Piper's evolution into full-on asshole as she fancies herself a prison mafia boss was amusing, if a bit slight. Daya's ongoing struggles about what to do with the impending baby improved markedly once Matt McGorry took off for another show, and we didn't have to watch Daya and Bennet play out their irritating, star-crossed love anymore. Even the staff gets some welcome development this year, as Litchfield goes corporate, infuriating the guards who begin losing hours and benefits.

I could go on and on about the little scenes of friendships and fights that worked well, but I'd wind up recapping the entire season. I'd be remiss if I didn't single out Adrienne C. Moore, though. Even with such a large group of actresses bringing extremely strong performances, she manages to just about walk off with the whole season with her performance as Black Cindy. We already knew Cindy could be funny and blunt and acidic, but Season 3 gives her an actual story arc. When inmates pretend to be Jewish in order to score Kosher meals, they're quickly squashed by a rabbi called in to test their commitment to the faith. Most of the inmates fold instantly, but Cindy starts to find meaning in the religion she originally was just goofing around with, and her quest for conversion is fantastic from beginning to end.

All that said, the critics are correct that the season lacks a central focus, like Vee last season. And though there's plenty that works, there's some wheel-spinning, too. I love Laverne Cox as much as the next guy, but in an effort to avoid mistreating one of the few transgender characters on television, the show's pendulum swings too far in the other direction, and she's treated with kid gloves that aren't afforded any of the other inmates. Laura Prepon is great, but Alex feels like she occupies a different universe than the rest of the characters. And the less said about this Red/Healy friendship, the better.

It was still a pretty terrific season, though, and I'm already looking forward to Season 4. While Season 3 may not have matched what this show has been able to accomplish before, a slightly-less-impressive OITNB is still worth more than every episode of television Shonda Rhimes has ever produced combined.

Orange is the New Black - Season 3: B+


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