Who Is Ruining 'Orange Is the New Black'—Jenji Kohan or Netflix?

Can 'Orange is the New Black' survive its slump?

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Complex Original

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During the premiere of Orange Is The New Black’s fourth season—dropping this Friday along with the other 12 episodes of the beloved drama—100 new prisoners arrive in Litchfield Penitentiary, ballooning the female prison to an even bigger max capacity. In the show, this infusion of inmates speaks to Litchfield’s deteriorating conditions and certainly nods toward the U.S.’s depressingly bad prison systems and the “do more with less” attitude forced upon them. But it serves as a clear reminder: there’s so much more OITNB to come. 

In case you forgot, OITNB was renewed for three more seasons after the one that’s just about to premiere. That means that, including the not-yet-seen season four, there are 52 episodes of the show you still haven’t seen. It also means that Friday’s fourth season is, at best, the midpoint of the story. A dozen people in your timeline probably made a joke about how Piper’s initial stay in Litchfield was supposed to be 15 months, but the disparity between that number and how long the show itself is going to last is hard to ignore. 

More importantly, the first few episodes of season four feel like a show settling in for the long haul. Between all those new prisoners and a few administrative changes, Litchfield’s more veteran inmates—Piper now included—are going to be pushed further out of their comfort zone. That sounds cool until you realize it’s fundamentally the same type of thing the show has done in each of the previous seasons to varying degrees of success. Meanwhile, OITNB’s grip of its distinctive tone is starting to loosen, with half of season four presenting the show at its bleakest while the other half is at its zaniest. These early episodes are far from bad, but they don’t exactly make a case for another three seasons.

We’ve seen this from Orange showrunner Jenji Kohan before. Kohan’s most high-profile project pre-OITNB was Showtime’s Weeds, the boundary-pushing, suburbia-critiquing black comedy starring Mary Louise Parker. Like OITNB, Weeds was legitimately progressive and subversive in its early seasons—it focused on a “complex female character” at a time when TV and pay cable especially couldn’t stop celebrating difficult men while balancing broad jokes with dark subject matter. The performances were great, and the writing, led by Kohan, was even better. Well, at first.

Weeds isn’t remembered as a Great Show because it took countless weird—though bold—turns in the middle and later seasons. Like with most projects that begin as a sharp critique of a genre, a lifestyle, or a moment, Weeds ended up embodying the stuff it initially pushed back against. It also mismanaged that tonal balance, swinging wildly from episode to episode, or even scene to scene. There’s good stuff in those later seasons, but it’s often obfuscated by whatever Big Idea Kohan and company had coming into the season, be it the family on the run, or Parker’s Nancy doing her own stint in prison.

OITNB started stronger than Weeds and is still better at this stage, but the parallels are there. You might start to think this is a Kohan problem. She’s a tremendous writer and a great TV thinker, developing exceptional ideas into really good shows; the degree of difficulty for that alone is so high, and TV viewers take it for granted. Yet, maybe Kohan’s creativity gets the best of her in certain situations, delivering scattered-yet-ambitious shows that can’t quite sustain their early heights. In this regard, Kohan is like a better, less offensive, and slightly less productive Ryan Murphy. 

But this isn’t exactly Kohan’s fault. The biggest detriment to Weeds and its legacy was that it aired on Showtime, the world champion in dragging its popular shows out far past their natural expiration date. Think of your favorite Showtime show. Did it have at least one full season that you could just trash entirely and feature another season with a classic TV gimmick like a setting change? You definitely answered yes to both of those questions.

While Weeds did come at a different era in TV production when shorter and fewer seasons, with agreed upon endings, weren’t exactly common, eight years and 102 episodes felt like too much at the time and seems particularly egregious now. That’s nearly double the number of episodes of Girls that we’ll get, and even six more than Entourage, which I'm pretty sure ran for 19 years on HBO. The space given to creatives like Kohan helped make Weeds great early on; that Kohan had to keep finding new angles on an eventually tired premise played a huge role in turning Weeds into something far less than great.

For better and for worse, Kohan is in the same situation with OITNB and Netflix. In fact, though Netflix kicked off its billion-dollar assault on TV by calling out HBO, the streaming boss has pretty quickly mimicked the strategy of Showtime, ordering as many seasons of its notable shows as possible. OITNB is locked in for at least seven seasons. House of Cards, another tentpole drama with a perceived expiration date, is going to continue for at least another season (its fifth), without original showrunner Beau Willimon. We might get four or five seasons of Bloodline, a show about people sweating in Florida. The great thing about streaming video is that you can basically do anything; for Netflix, it increasingly looks like that means just doing a lot of everything. 

This is the environment in which Kohan—and all of Netflix’s dope creative people—are working. She has immense freedom to produce a show unlike anything else on TV, the internet, or otherwise. Calling for the curtailing of anyone’s creative process, or asking them to working within typical constraints, is lame. But some guidance, or at least fewer episodes, is still important. Just look at Kohan’s comp Murphy. Although he made good and zeitgeist-y shows like Nip/Tuck and Glee, they quickly became too much, too soon and still ran another four years after that. But when FX helped channel Murphy’s audacious energy into miniseries, where he can throw in every big, crazy idea into the mix for one season and then move onto an entirely different story, the quality of his output improved dramatically. 

Maybe the next three seasons of OITNB won’t decline as precipitously as Weeds. But you hate to see great shows like this one, and inventive minds like Kohan's, get stuck trying to extend and innovate just because their network, channel, or platforms can’t let go.

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