More has generally been the key to Orange Is the New Black’s extraordinariness. In a media landscape still centered around straight, white, affluent men, the Netflix series has made it its mission to give us more women: black women, Latina women, Asian and Amish and Australian women, queer women, trans women, celibate-by-choice women, fat women, poor women, rural and religious and immigrant women — the variety of femalehood we never get to see onscreen. Defying genre, OITNB has been one of the very best comedies and dramas for its first three years, using its radical inclusivity to tell fresh, empathetic, and unfailingly funny stories we’ve rarely, if ever, seen on television.
Season 4, however, may be where OITNB’s big-tent approach finally falters. Last year ended with the sale of Litchfield Penitentiary to a for-profit correctional corporation, leading to a flood of new inmates. Narratively and thematically, the twist in the Season 3 finale was an ambitious gambit: Few shows can be expected to explore the vileness of prison privatization with so much intelligence, heart, and humor. Unsurprisingly, creator Jenji Kohan uses the hellish overcrowding that accompanies Litchfield’s privatization to increase the show's diversity even further. Among the new arrivals are Piper’s Hawaiian bunkmate, Cindy’s headscarfed nemesis, a group of Puerto Rico–hating Dominicans, and a Paula Deen–esque celebrity chef.
Kohan’s ideals are noble, but the introduction of so many more characters and storylines on this already dizzyingly busy show has resulted in a dilution, and OITNB has become a victim of its own success. Now there are too many characters we already adore whom we don’t get to spend enough time with (Danielle Brooks' Taystee, Uzo Aduba's Suzanne, Lea DeLaria's Big Boo), while actresses who have launched their careers (Laverne Cox) or revigorated them (Natasha Lyonne) through the series are barely there. Consequently, when Cox’s Sophia and Lyonne’s Nicky sink into their respective hells, we don’t feel like we’ve traveled their journeys with them.
One of the show’s most underappreciated strengths is its attention to the senses — how things smell, taste, sound, and feel in prison. Even still, the itch that afflicts the inmates who ran into the lake at the end of last season feels trivial compared to Sophia’s mounting desperation in solitary confinement or the fate of new mother Daya’s (Dascha Polanco) baby. OITNB has always been as much about small moments of humanity and hilarity as it has been about major issues, but there’s something off about the show’s usually delightful shooting-the-shit scenes in this new season; these moments of tension relief often feel like time we could be actively developing other plots. Though we don’t get to select whose stories we see, the paradox of choice applies here: When we watch Character X (especially one of the newer inmates), it’s hard not to be disappointed and wonder which Character Y or Z we could be watching instead.
At least OITNB continues to nail the socially relevant storylines we wouldn’t see anywhere else on TV. Season 4 shows through telling details — like the dearth of toilet paper and sanitary pads or the scheduling of the first breakfast shift at 4:30 a.m. — how overcrowding makes life behind bars that much less tolerable. The usually (mostly) harmonious racial relations within Litchfield hit a rough spot, then head toward crisis, as intra-Caribbean hostilities spread among the Latina inmates and the white prisoners exploit the subtle racism of the overwhelmingly Caucasian guards. Rarely sentimental about romance, the show explores in intimate detail the difficulties of gay Poussey (Samira Wiley) and heteroflexible Soso’s (Kimiko Glenn) cross-racial love, which struggles to find stable footing amid genuine fondness, mutual biases, and a questionable match of desires and hopes. It’s in their search for connection that we can most clearly see the old OITNB: proudly different, bitingly honest, and utterly devoted to its women.