The issues-oriented last season of Orange is the New Black has been supplanted by character studies. Thank goodness. The writing, always very good and this year aided and abetted by local novelist Merritt Tierce, is even better when it's focused on the characters that have -- in fits and starts -- been so vividly brought to life.
Uzo Aduba, who has won three Emmy Awards for her role, gets the prize here, too. Suzanne is center stage from the first episode to the last. Even when the focus shifts, the question remains: What is Suzanne doing? How is Suzanne doing? That has as much to do with a new locale as it does with the writing.
When we last left Litchfield, the women were separated after a "riot." Some were sent away and others were sent to "max," the maximum security prison down the hill.
It's no small thing to say things are different at max. Guards are engaged in dubious practices, even gambling on inmates' transgressions in "Fantasy Inmate." Guards are also more a part of the story, as opposed to being used as catalysts for other stories.
But they're all still in prison, as Aleida Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez, still making an impact outside the walls) reminds us all during a rant.
But change is good, for the show anyway. It had become mired in outside hot-button issues that are better expressed through the characters: racism, systemic and otherwise; misogyny; and sheer tomfoolery. The show went back to basics, essentially getting the groove back that got it so many fans in the first place. This sixth season of Orange is the New Black feels more grounded because of it.
In that vein, longtime characters such as Piper -- even writing her name could be a spoiler so I'll end this sentence.
The season starts slow, churning out the answers to questions such as who said what when the feds sniff around to spread the blame for the riot and death of guard Piscatella. The first few episodes slam you into the inner workings of a federal investigation and you will not like what they do and how they do it.
And, of course, our people get involved in the power dynamics as soon as they move into the general population. The queens of max are sisters Barb (Mackenzie Phillips, in a welcome comeback) and Carol (Henny Russell, chilling) Denning. They are in different cell blocks and run them as rival gangs. If you think more could have been done here, there's a reason the hatred plays out with a capital Petty; the girls were teenagers when they got to prison. Talk about arrested development.
Anyway, that's just the start of new characters that rub salt into the wounds of the ones we've been following. Two, in particular, make an impact to the future of our friends in max: Daddy, who helps Barb with her drug business and Daya with her, well, everything else; "Badison," played like a note-for-note Stockard Channing as Rizzo in Grease by Amanda Fuller; and Adeola (Sipewe Moyo, cellmate to a very pregnant Lorna), who's smarter than the pets she keeps would indicate.
After all these years, Orange is the New Black is still one of the most binge-able shows around, but this time it takes its time to give you time to digest. It seems so long ago that it was the only original show that Netflix could tout.
Now, it's the old show on the block. But, like its added protagonists, it still has a lot of kick.