Orange is the New Black (Netflix, streaming now), Jenji Kohan's comedy-drama series, now in its fifth series and guaranteed two more, has proven itself a breakout success by tending to turn inwards. The show quickly realised that neither this fish-out-of-water (played with willowy self-deprecation by Taylor Schilling) nor her bad-girl lover Alex (Laura Prepon) were its main attractions. Instead, its refreshingly diverse and expansive ensemble were the reason to watch.
It has also proven an involving and durable formula: like a stunned new inmate gradually becoming a seasoned hard chaw, the viewer gets to know a vast gallery of characters.
Piper, due for release in three months, does not, and so Kohan has now chosen to stretch time, spreading this series over just three days. “You know women don’t riot,” one guard once assured another, but, following the death of tender-hearted tough girl Poussey, and the unchecked sadism of poorly-vetted correction officers, Litchfield Prison is now under siege by the inmates. The stand-off that ended the previous series is violently resolved, yet the comedy feels broader, making the cafeteria equally receptive to vigils and food fights, while characters split off in pairs to conduct roving and slight side adventures.
That's a shame, because at its best, OITNB has served as a canny barometer of American concerns. When Litchfield fell into private ownership and dismal conditions, just as Piper became don of her own clandestine business empire, it landed acerbic points about US capitalism. Here the heft is glimpsed less often, registered mostly in the protest the black prisoners try to broadcast to an indifferent world outside. "People don't care," says the excellent Danielle Brooks as Taystee, the show's conscience, shivering with the realisation that the prisoners are not seen as people.
For that, it seems, they would need to share a much more exhaustive catalogue of their transgressions, passions, allegiances and quirks, much like OITNB. Given enough access, people do care.