Review: Orange is the New Black Embraces its Superb Ensemble

Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) has never been Orange is The New Black’s most interesting character. Piper’s function for the show has always really been audience avatar, a “normal” person who “doesn’t belong” in prison for us to relate to as we see prison life through her eyes. So far the approach has worked despite Piper being, perhaps, the show’s least compelling character. For the show’s fourth season creator Jenji Kohan and her writers have wisely decided to shift the focus away from its main character and onto the stellar array of supporting characters that have previously taken a back seat. It works like gangbusters.

While Piper is still, ostensibly, Orange is the New Black’s main character, she is no longer the show’s protagonist. Her actions to not drive the narrative. In fact, Piper is almost entirely passive this season, on the periphery of various plotlines; privy, but not party, to the murder that kicks off the first episode and leads to myriad complications later. It is hard to pinpoint exactly which characters are at the center of this season as screen-time is, essentially, split evenly between a great number of the show’s characters. If there is one “hero” it is, in an interesting new wrinkle, Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), the newly-minted warden of Litchfield Penitentiary, who finds himself fighting for more humane treatment of the inmates in his custody in the face of the uncaring corporate entity that runs the prison, and a new batch of correctional officers who range from cretinous to fascist to psychopathic.

Kohan and company do not show any interest in straightforward heroes and villains and by introducing the aforementioned antagonists, characters who have previously been villains are able to step out of the role and be seen in a more sympathetic light. Chief amongst these characters is Taryn Manning’s Pennsatucky, who must process complicated feelings about “Donuts,” the guard who previously sexually assaulted her. The writers understand that it is hard to have the complete picture of a character and still feel animosity toward them and so they wisely do not worry about keeping old villains villainous; the new villains are more than villainous enough, if memory serves, this is the most harrowing season of the series yet.

It is also the best season of the series yet. While Piper is, as stated above, not the show’s most interesting character, this is not actress Schilling’s fault and the writers take her character to interesting places as she begins to realize the true consequences of her actions and that she might be the villain of some other inmates’ stories. While Orange is the New Black is now, correctly, identified as a drama by the Emmys, the show is still very funny when it’s not emotionally wrenching. If the show had not found the perfect balance before, it has now and it’s ensemble have never been better. Especially outstanding are Adrienne C. More as Black Cindy, Danielle Brooks as Taystee, who is perhaps the show’s best character and who enjoys the position of assistant to warden Caputo. No matter which of Orange is the New Black’s many much-loved characters most holds a fan’s interest, said fan is not likely to be disappointed with the season, all are given their time. It could be a recipe for a woefully unfocused season of television but in the expert hands of Jenji Kohan and her staff, it’s an incredibly rich tapestry of comedy and tragedy. More than worthy of the next three seasons for which it has been renewed.

Orange is the New Black, Season 4 (Netflix)
Created By: Jenji Kohan
Starring: Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, MIchael J. Harney, Kate Mulgrew, Uzo Aduba, Danielle Brooks, Natasha Lyonne, Taryn Manning, Adrienne C. Moore, Dascha Polanco, Nick Sandow, Yael Stone

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