The fourth season of Orange Is the New Black is out today, and by the standards of many cable series, it’s already well on its way toward advanced television age – four full seasons of 13 hour-long episodes is a solid chunk of storytelling. How much more narrative can showrunner Jenji Kohan possibly wring from one building? HBO’s Oz ran for 56 episodes over six seasons; Fox’s soon-to-be-revived Prison Break ran for four network-length seasons (but, let’s be honest, we all know it went off the rails long before cancellation). Prison narratives might have a fairly short lifespan before they run out of new things to say.
But in spite of the track record of its forebears, Netflix has already renewed Orange Is the New Black — and not just for one season. Kohan has a deal in place to continue creating OITNB at least through season seven, which (depending on episode orders) could bring the series to over 90 episodes. If it were a network show in an older TV paradigm, OITNB would be well on its way to a sweet syndication deal.
For many series, this might be a terrible idea. There are a few familiar ways to make really long form TV work. You can set up a plug-and-play procedural rhythm, turn the narrative machine on, and let it run basically undisturbed for years on end. You can write more serialized, long-arc stories, but you have to give them space to be rangy and flexible. Mad Men set and reset its narrative world several times over; shows like Justified or Breaking Bad tended to create new big bads to fight; Friday Night Lights ran out of rope and then picked up and started over somewhere else. Or, if neither of those options appeal, you hop onto the newer anthology-style train, where each season gives you a chance to wipe the slate clean and start again.
Each of those structures has a mechanism to help sustain it over the long term. (Well … Friday Night Lights didn’t, really, but they were forced to figure it out.) From this perspective, Orange Is the New Black could be in something of a pickle. Short of picking up a few characters and transporting them to an entirely new facility, the series is pretty well stuck with Litchfield. And for seven seasons' worth of story, Litchfield is not an especially large narrative playground. In its main timeline, the show takes brief excursions outside of prison property — to, say, go jump in a lake — but the significant majority of current storytelling takes place inside the prison.
The thing that makes stories limited to a single place so great — their intensity, their focus on character, their need for narrative innovation — also tends to put a short fuse on their storytelling. By its basic nature, this is what a prison series is. It’s like a big blown-up bottle episode, trapping everyone inside and forcing them to live with one another.
What Orange Is the New Black has going for it is that, unlike high-school shows like Glee, which run into the wall of main characters all reaching graduation at the same moment, it has the flexibility to stagger arrivals and departures. It can cycle in new characters and allow older ones to exit without needing to remake the series’ dynamic. Vee can arrive (and exit), Nicky can get sent to max, characters can go to SHU and return, and the inevitable waves of intake and outflow help make Litchfield more like Sterling Cooper, and less like Gilligan’s Island. Whereas Battlestar Galactica had to magically stumble across the only other surviving battlestar ship in the universe to introduce some new characters, Orange Is the New Black has a thoughtful, plausible mechanism for churn.
No premise for a TV show, regardless of how well built and well fitting it is for its narrative form, can guarantee that the show won’t still run off the rails. Fatigue, unforeseeable changes in cast or in production staff, or just one bad apple of an idea can quickly set things spinning in bad (or, worse, boring) directions.
But here is a secret about really long running television: A lot of it works because it’s also good at being very short. For all their meandering plots and long-arc storytelling, shows like Mad Men and The Americans — or, even more dramatically, The Good Wife and Jane the Virgin — are also masters of the single episode as a unit. Whether they use multiple story threads to tell one thematic story, or tie everything together with an imposed premise, or find a procedural beat inside one of the other plots lurking around the edges, some intrinsic foundation of episodic patterning helps keep shows fresh.
Orange Is the New Black has no need to write television episodes of the sort we know and love from network series. It’s a part of the new vanguard of TV programming, entirely divorced from the industrial programming restrictions that once ruled TV storytelling. But nevertheless, deep in the DNA of the show, most of its episodes have a distinct, single-story feel shaped by character flashbacks.
Orange Is the New Black’s flashbacks do an immense amount of work. They pull the story outside of Litchfield, at least for a little while. They are crucial to the series’ fundamental project of diversity and representation, allowing even characters at the margins of the show to get their moments in the spotlight. They make flat, one-note characters into fully rounded, complicated humans. They engender empathy. They make a series trapped inside a single building feel like a massive, sprawling, intricately detailed narrative.
And the flashbacks also allow each installment to operate as a unit in a way that too many streaming TV series are now abandoning. It’s not that they’re a monster-of-the-week structure: Huge sections of every episode are about ongoing stories that have nothing to do with the flashback content. But those flashbacks are still creating a backbone for that hour of television, separating it from what came before and what will come next. Even when the flashbacks themselves aren’t especially compelling, as was sometimes the case in season three, they give episodes an individual identity, which makes it possible for each new installment to feel like a new project. If the last episode wasn’t fully satisfying, if perhaps you weren’t excited by Leanne’s Amish background, the Pennsatucky episodes will still feel different.
Orange Is the New Black may well run out of story or run off the rails or make an unfortunate choice it cannot recover from — I cannot see the future. But unlike the fifth season of its Netflix peer House of Cards, I’m happy to look at OITNB’s big, hearty, three-season renewal and contemplate the possibilities. It is a show remarkably well suited to reinventing itself without also needing to reinvent the wheel. It is, in the new streaming paradigm, an excellent example of a streaming-native series employing the tricks that old-school TV had already figured out — that delicious combination of familiarity and novelty, of long stories and short payoffs, and of big stories in small spaces.