“Orange is the New Black” has always been more about characters than story, but the structure of Season 5 — after the fourth’s emotional cliffhanger — puts that formula to the test, as the prison-uprising plot line drags on until it’s easy to start feeling a little stir crazy.
On the plus side, the reaction to the tragic death of Poussey at the hands of a prison guard feels powerful and genuine, as the lingering fallout from that incident exposes the grief and anger stemming from a single death. The scenario creates a strong showcase for some of the sprawling cast, perhaps especially Danielle Brooks as Taystee.
That said, the upside-down nature of the riot scenario — with the inmates in charge, subjecting guards and administrators to indignities and abuse — becomes tedious, even within a concentrated time frame.
“It’s like a party, except terrifying,” Morello (Yael Stone) says of the riot.
“Terrifying,” however, leaves the building pretty soon; rather, the teased-out story arc feels more leisurely than binge-worthy. And while the hostage scenario yields amusing moments such as the prisoners’ list of demands — some serious, others wholly ridiculous — it’s hard to escape a sense that the writers have essentially stretched seven episodes worth of story into a 13-episode season.
So what’s left? A fair number of clever one-liners and character beats, such as an African-American prisoner referring to Lifetime as “the white-lady channel,” a TV interview with a parolee that naturally goes off the rails and Uzo Aduba’s crazier-than-usual antics as Crazy Eyes.
There is also, inevitably, the ebb and flow of key relationships, most notably the impediment-laden romance between Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon), who saunter through the mayhem surrounding them with near-equal doses of bickering and self-absorption.
The series began, it’s worth remembering, from Piper’s perspective, providing a wide-eyed window into this prison world. That dynamic dissipated long ago, with Piper receding into the ensemble as a dizzying array of personalities have filled the void.
As a sign of the show’s popularity and importance, Netflix extended the producers a significant vote of confidence last year by renewing “Orange is the New Black” through a seventh season, so the gates of Litchfield prison won’t be closing any time soon.
Intentionally or not, though, that long lease translates in this latest run into a lack of narrative urgency. While the comedy-drama still delivers its share of colorful flourishes, season five plays like a sentence that should have been commuted for just so-so behavior.
“Orange is the New Black” premieres June 9 on Netflix.