Roush Review: ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Gets Its Groove Back

Orange Is the New Black

Watching a Netflix series drone on, episode after overlong episode, can sometimes feel like a life sentence. That was certainly the case a year ago with Orange Is the New Black’s fifth season, which stretched out a three-day prison riot over 13 torturous episodes.

The good news — for us, if not for the long-suffering female inmates of Litchfield — is that Season 6 is a return to near-peak form for a series that helped put Netflix on the map. It’s a necessary reset, introducing new characters and adversaries, with emotional reversals and suspenseful conflicts bringing fresh dynamics to what had felt like a played-out formula.

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A different setting helps. The so-called “riot girls” are now in Litchfield Max, separated into rival cellblocks while federal investigators play them against one another, seeking scapegoats.

With friendships potentially soured forever by betrayals and lies, the women become unwilling pawns in a war between two bitterly estranged sisters who rule their separate domains: Barb (a fierce Mackenzie Phillips), the junkie leader of Block D, and misanthropic Carol (Henny Russell) of Block C.

Orange Is the New Black

(Photo: JoJo Whilden / Netflix)

“Bosses, gang warfare, extortion — since when are we living in The Godfather?” laments Piper (Taylor Schilling), as always the would-be peacemaker, this time getting on the wrong side of Carol’s deputy. Nicknamed “Badison” (Amanda Fuller), this Boston brawler and loathsome bully becomes the season’s primary, and most pathetic, villain.

Behind bars, that is. The guards, with few exceptions, are more brutal and cynical than ever, and Litchfield’s corporate owners even more soullessly focused on profit, seeing the prisoners only as numbers on a balance sheet.

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We know better. Orange has always excelled at humanizing these lost and damaged souls, and amid the grit and despair are moments of tenderness, romance, altruistic heroism — by, of all people, former warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) — and, of course, bawdy humor. I know I’d listen to a podcast of the hilarious radio show cohosted by funky Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) and vain Flaca (Jackie Cruz).

By the time the season ends with a pivotal kickball game, I barely minded that the finale went on for nearly 90 minutes. Time almost flies when a show gets its groove back.

Orange Is the New Black, Season Premiere Friday, July 27, Netflix