This summer's TV lineup is packed with more than a hundred new and returning programs, but only a handful are truly worth your time. Last week, Adweek highlighted the season's 12 must-see shows, but if that list had to be whittled down to a single essential summer series, it would be Orange Is the New Black, which returned tonight as Netflix released its 13-episode third season.
The series, which focuses on the female inmates housed at the Litchfield Penitentiary, took audiences by surprise when it premiered two summers ago on Netflix. No one made the same mistake last June when the now-heralded show returned for a sophomore season that somehow managed to be even better than the first. That quality momentum continues with Season 3—Netflix gave critics an early look at the first six episodes—as the show has raised its game yet again and proved itself more than worthy of all the accolades that have come its way.
In short, Orange Is the New Black is summer's best show. Here are five reasons you should drop everything and start binge-watching Season 3—or, if you aren't caught up yet, Seasons 1 and 2—immediately:
It remains Netflix's premier series. House of Cards and Arrested Development got all the early buzz as Netflix ramped up its original series slate in 2013, but Orange quickly and quietly leapfrogged both to become its finest show. It's now held that title for two years running, even as the streaming service routinely releases multiple series each month.
Orange Is the New Black continues its reign not just because the show is so sensational but also due to the fact that it remains Netflix's most distinctive, unique show. As the network has evolved and tries to be all things to all people, its original series have begun to feel more familiar—recent dramas like Bloodline could have been right at home on FX or Showtime, while comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt had been slated for NBC before Netflix stepped in. But Orange, like Amazon's Transparent, continues to be the rare special series you just can't find on any other outlet and the best justification for your Netflix subscription.
Even three seasons in, it still feels fresh and new. Most series have settled in by Season 3, and while they aren't necessarily going through the motions yet, they at least are starting to get a little set in their ways. Orange, on the other hand, still feels as if it has only scratched the surface of its rich, multilayered characters, with every episode unearthing new revelations and insights about its ever-expanding cast of inmates (and prison staff).
As was the case with Season 2, the new episodes make inspired use of the show's flashback structure (most episodes include a look at one of its characters' pre-Litchfield backstory) to deepen its characters with new surprises that force you to re-examine everything that has come before.
This is an important point, given that the show's creator, Jenji Kohan, grew so impatient on her last show, Showtime's Weeds, that she routinely rebooted the series every couple of seasons, jettisoning much of what made the series so addictive in the process. That hasn't happened here, and Orange is all the better for it.
There aren't enough slots for all the Emmy-worthy female performances on this show. Each year, there are six nominations up for grabs in the best actress, supporting actress and guest actress Emmy categories, and all 18 of them could easily be filled by Orange's fathoms-deep bench of a cast, with a few worthy performances still getting snubbed. In this season, the early standouts include Uzo Abuda's Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren, who refuses to accept that escaped inmate Vee (under whose destructive spell she fell last season) won't be returning after the events of the Season 2 finale; Lea DeLaria's Big Boo, who shines in her poignant flashback episode; and Kate Mulgrew's force of nature, Red, who finally tries to reclaim some of the power she lost in Seasons 1 and 2. And, as is typical of a series that often gives major arcs to its most peripheral characters, look for some new inmates to get unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight and make the most of it.
Its worst storyline has been eliminated. Proving that even TV's best series have their flaws, the biggest strike against Orange's otherwise superb Season 2 was its insistence on sticking with Larry (Jason Biggs), the now-ex-fiancé of Piper (Taylor Schilling), whose incarceration laid the groundwork for the series' early episodes and helped introduce audiences to the show and its characters.
But he outlived his usefulness by the end of Season 1, and his continued presence became an albatross that Orange desperately needed to rid itself of. This season, it finally has. Without Larry—the show's version of Debbie Downer, always grinding the proceedings to an awkward, excruciating halt—Orange has lost its dead weight.
The show still hasn't been crushed under its own hype. Time and again, series have taken audiences by storm only to flame out in Season 2 or 3 as they fall victim to their own hype. Shows become inexorably changed and watered down with countless celebrity cameos and inexplicable makeovers. Even Friends had this problem in Season 2 before rebounding, while Glee wasn't so lucky.
But Orange Is the New Black has avoided those pitfalls. Yes, there's one makeover in an early episode, but it's organic to the plot and appropriately ridiculous. The closest thing to a celeb cameo is the addition of Mary Steenburgen, who plays the mother of former corrections officer George "Pornstache" Mendez.
The show hasn't taken its eye off the prize and, as a result, is more addictive and rewarding this season than ever.