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‘Orange Is the New Black’ never felt like a prison sentence — until now

The sixth season moves to maximum security, but the setting doesn’t provide a compelling story line

Building shows into fantastical cliffs and then driving off them may be Jenji Kohan’s most identifiable weakness. The Orange Is the New Black creator and showrunner has smart, cheeky ideas for the beginnings of stories (see Weeds seasons one through three) but less skill and restraint in sustaining them over the long haul (see Weeds seasons four through eight).

It appears we’ve reached the latter point with Orange Is the New Black, which begins streaming its sixth season Friday on Netflix.

Since its first season concluded, the show has found ways to reinvent itself, even within the confines of Litchfield Correctional. That’s meant spending time in the hell that is solitary confinement, sending Piper (Taylor Schilling) to Chicago’s Metropolitan Detention Center, creating secret bits of prison for the ladies to discover, including an empty swimming pool. It’s meant doing deep dives into how prison privatization and corruption affect the lives of prisoners, and the effects of state-sanctioned violence on both those who receive it and those who deliver it.

Where else can the show go after a notorious, news-cycle-dominating prison strike that left two guards dead, a Management & Correction Corporationr (MCC) executive mistaken for a federal inmate, another inmate on the run with her prison guard boyfriend who previously raped her, and a giant public relations mess for MCC?

Up the hill to maximum security, but that’s about it.

Season six finds Orange recycling themes and rearranging familiar characters among different cellblocks. The women of max are meaner, tougher and, at times, just plain gross. There are new intrafamily rivalries and new bullies vying for control of their fellow inmates. The max guards are a bored group of sadists who play Fantasy Prisoner, which is just as cynical and messed up as it sounds. Caputo (Nick Sandow) and Figueroa (Alysia Reiner) keep pingponging between mutual admiration and disgust for one another. Piper is still yawningly self-obsessed.

Meanwhile, the show sags under the weight of so many characters even as it adds new ones, complete with pre-prison backstories. This season tries to find a compelling central conflict, but after the heart-racing stakes that made Orange so bingeable for five seasons, there’s not much left.

Prison comes with a sentence. Orange Is the New Black never felt like one — until now.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.