‘Orange is the New Black’ final season finds urgency and purpose in ICE plot

Posted at 6:48 AM, Jul 26, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-26 08:48:09-04

“Orange is the New Black” and “House of Cards” helped put Netflix on the map, establishing the service as an original programming force. The prison drama, however, has stumbled in the latter half of its run, as it heads into a final season elevated and given a sense of urgency and purpose by a timely hook involving immigration and detention.

In hindsight, the three-year renewal that Netflix gave the show in 2016 did the producers no favors creatively speaking, leading to a somewhat meandering stretch, including the too-drawn-out prison-riot storyline that basically encompassed an entire season.

The seventh season, inevitably, is still dealing with some of the fallout from that, as well as the challenges that several inmates face when released back into society. There is also plenty of prison politics, and the ongoing, on-again/off-again relationship between Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon), which has grown increasingly tiresome, complicated by the fact that the two now find themselves on opposite sides of the wall.

All of that pales, however, compared to the stories that surround the incarceration and deportation of those caught up in Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a web that enmeshes multiple characters (names withheld to avoid spoilers), some of whom have spent all or most of their lives in the U.S.

Separated from children, unable to secure effective legal counsel and in some cases forced to return to countries that are utterly foreign to them, those sequences have a more pronounced ripped-from-the-headlines quality than anything you’ll find on “Law & Order.” They give the final season an emotional impact that’s occasionally been missing as “Orange” flits about trying to adequately service its dozens of characters.

The only down side is that the writers also indulge in some of the excesses that have characterized the show — in this case, making the main ICE officers too broadly drawn. However one views those who would carry out current Trump administration policies, those flourishes come across as heavy-handed, in a way that most of what’s found in these highly emotional storylines doesn’t.

Like any series defined primarily by its setting — where characters can come and go, such as the shifting personnel at the hospital in “Grey’s Anatomy” — “Orange” faces an extra degree of difficulty in bringing closure to its various storylines, since the prison, and its abuses, will go on.

Still, there are several strong threads, including standout work here by Diane Guerrero, Laura Gomez and Taryn Manning, as well as a #MeToo storyline that actually sees a male character deal with whether actions he deemed innocuous at the time truly were.

“Orange is the New Black” has always been something of an odd duck, a series that changed its award classification from comedy to drama early in its run — forcing the Television Academy to weigh in on the matter — and that has never seemed fully at home in either.

Netflix will surely miss the show, which by most accounts remains one of its most popular. But unlike “House of Cards” — whose run was truncated by the scandal involving star Kevin Spacey — it’s hard to say “Orange’s” exit is premature. Having served the full term of its renewal, it’s time — maybe even past it –to go home.

“Orange is the New Black” premieres its final season July 26 on Netflix.