WHAT IT’S ABOUT Litchfield’s guards stage an impromptu walkout in protest over Joe Caputo’s (Nick Sandow) self-promotion to “director of human activity,” just as 100 new inmates arrive, including a famous one, TV chef Judy King (Blair Brown), who’s in for tax fraud. Meanwhile, a work crew left a gaping hole in the prison yard fence, and the girls head straight for the lake.
This season begins in that lake, where new friendships are forged, notably between Suzanne Warren (Uzo Aduba) and Kukudio (Emily Althaus). Also: Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) has converted to Judaism while a new inmate is a Muslim. Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Soso (Kimiko Glenn) develop their friendship. Sophia (Laverne Cox) is still in “SHU,” or solitary (she doesn’t show up until the fourth episode). Alex (Laura Prepon) confronts a hit man in the greenhouse. Piper (Taylor Schilling) confronts everyone else, notably a growing Latina contingent.
MY SAY Back in February, Netflix handed “OITNB” three more seasons after this latest one. Most shows are happy to get one more year. Three’s an eternity or — given these circumstances — nearly a life sentence, without the possibility of parole, for fans or network.
Also given these circumstances, that’s not a bad thing either. Based on the first six episodes of the 4th season, “OITNB” remains fresh, funny/sad, smart, inventive, well-written, and particularly well-acted. There’s nothing here to disappoint established fans, maybe even a little something (or someone) to attract new ones.
“OITNB” is funnier than usual, too. For a show that could never quite seem to decide where its heart truly belonged (comedy or drama) that might appear to be a big departure. In fact, it’s not. “OITNB” always obstinately reserved the right to be either/or, sometimes both. That all remains the same, and so that does that trademark exploration of Big Issues: mental illness, transgender abuse, prison overcrowding, and the complex, innate human drive to socially sort ourselves by ethnicity, status and sexual orientation.
Nevertheless, the first six episodes are still funnier. No doubt about that.
What this season also establishes is that this is a series built to last, easily for three more seasons, maybe beyond. Either by accident or design, “OITNB” has turned out to be a sturdy story-generating machine. Need more conflict, more issues, more tangents? Bring in a bus load of them — and orange, by the way, is the new black once again. With all those newbies, you’ll see a lot more orange jumpsuits than you may have in recent seasons.
Or, need a deeper exploration of established characters? Those flashbacks introduced in the second season should do the trick, and do it nicely. Both former warden Sam Healy (Michael Harney) and Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) get the flashback treatment this season, enriching their back stories and their humanity.
This story machine really gets cranking by bringing in actors with a very impressive body of work but not a lot of prime-time visibility these days to show for it. These include some of the “golden girls” of Litchfield, like Lori Petty (Lolly), veteran stage actress Dale Soules (Frieda), Beth Fowler (Sister Jane) and Kate Mulgrew (the one and only Red).
The latest addition is Brown. Her Judy King is all Southern charm easily yoked to sunny disposition — naturally masking a shrewd street fighter who knows how to get exactly what she wants. “No fatties, Nebraskans or anybody with too much hair,” she drawls, when specifying bunkmates. “OITNB’s” writers obviously had a lot of fun writing for her. She looks like she’s having fun, too.
BOTTOM LINE Very entertaining start to the 4th.