Starring: Taylor Schilling, Natasha Lyonne, Uzo Aduba, Danielle Brooks, Jackie Cruz, Laura Gómez, Selenis Leyva, Taryn Manning, Adrienne C. Moore, Matt Peters, Jessica Pimentel, Dascha Polanco, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Nick Sandow, Dale Soules, Yael Stone, Kate Mulgrew and Laura Prepon
Created by: Jenji Kohan
Based on: Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman
When Orange Is the New Black is good, it’s very, very good. But the comedy drama also has the tendency to lose its way along the shady, murky, raunchy, irreverent corridors of its own premise. It’s this inability to consistently find the right focus and balance that led to the mess that was season five, a digression that seemed to be constructed on some of the series’ worst whims instead of its best assets. Luckily though, the web hit has once again found its footing in its latest season, a return to form with the show once again spinning fascinatingly dark and twisted tales.
We return to the lives of the inmates at Litchfield Penitentiary, with the repercussions of last season reverberating into this set of 13 episodes. The setting has changed from minimum to maximum security as a result of the riot that started with the death of an inmate and led to the death of a guard.
Loyalties are tested amidst the fallout from the riot, as the authorities search for scapegoats, looking to create examples by increasing the sentences of those deemed – justly or otherwise – responsible for the revolt. The incarcerated women find themselves in the position of having to push their friends under the bus if they want to escape unscathed.
On an individual front, Piper (Taylor Schilling) is looking for Alex (Laura Prepon), fearing the latter might be dead. Daya (Dascha Polanco) is suffering physical abuse from the guards, while her mother, Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez), who is now out of prison, is trying to get her children back. Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) is worried about Red (Kate Mulgrew) who is feeling betrayed by her girls. Gloria (Selenis Leyva) and Maria (Jessica Pimentel) are at odds. Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) is struggling to adjust to her new surroundings. Lorna (Yael Stone) is having a baby and Blanca (Laura Gómez) is wishing she was having a baby. Frieda (Dale Soules) is worried for her safety. Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) is on the lam. Flaca (Jackie Cruz) is intent on hosting a prison radio talk show. Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) is filled with guilt over a choice she made. And Taystee (Danielle Brooks) is trying to fight the charges that have been levelled against her by the authorities.
Not everyone from the previous seasons is present this time around. Much of the recurring cast is missing, and several new characters have been introduced in their place. The main thread for the new additions revolves around the decades-old feud between two prison blocks, each led by one of two rival sisters, Carol (Henny Russell) and Barb (Mackenzie Phillips), aided by their respective henchwomen, Badison (Amanda Fuller) and Daddy (Vicci Martinez).
The newcomers mostly serve as the villains, and the baddies here are a bit of a problem. Most of these characters are like caricatures – just plain bad with no redeeming qualities … although that doesn’t come as a surprise as OITNB isn’t exactly known for its subtlety. But if you prefer your players with shades of grey, then the main villains are likely to disappoint. The antics of their minions may be fun to watch, but ultimately it’s hard to care one way or another which sister eventually triumphs.
But that isn’t a major squabble, since there is plenty of emotional drama on offer from the legacy cast. Orange Is the New Black can’t always get the tone right, but it knows how to create affecting portraits of complex women, and season six is a step in the right direction for character development. The change in setting also helps by injecting some life into a premise that is struggling to find new ways to keep going. And as always, the series effectively rips the prison industry to shreds, highlighting the indifference of the for-profit prison system and shedding light on the predicament of those stuck in its brutal web.
Orange Is the New Black remains one of the most distinctive television shows (that isn’t actually on television). The flashbacks and back stories are not as strong this time, but even though the drama may not be as impressive as it was at its peak, season six still comes close to recapturing its former glory and is a marked improvement from last year’s outing. If you are a fan of the series, then you’ll enjoy this chance to reunite with familiar faces and delve a little deeper into their strange lives.