‘Orange Is New Black’: New Season, New Problems

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

The fourth season of Orange Is The New Black, which begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, finds the infusion of 100 new prisoners in the now run-for-profit prison causing a lot of overcrowding problems, and introducing both new characters and new dynamics. The dramedy, whose episodes hover around the hour mark, is bold in increasing an already large cast, although sometimes that boldness fails to pay off in full satisfaction.

Conditions are cramped in a couple of senses. There is a new balance of power, with certain groups deciding to flex the muscles of their new strength in numbers. There’s also a more comic subplot about the shortage of tampons throughout the prison; they are now trading at gold-bar-level prices.

Related: ‘Orange is the New Black’: What We Know About Season 4

Speaking of prices, Piper (Taylor Schilling) continues to run her used-panty empire, and I guess we’re supposed to be amused by Piper’s “gangsta, like with an ‘a’ at the end” moves; I thought the character just seems more ludicrously out of place than usual — which, to give the writers credit, may be one reaction the show hopes to provoke from some viewers.

The first half of the new season is definitely more sitcom-y than ever. The jokes can be corny — someone refers to the overcrowded conditions as “Inmate-palooza”; another yelps cheerfully, “Can’t we have a race war; it’d be fun!” — and there’s a running gag about snoring involving Red (Kate Mulgrew) that seems more like something recycled from an ancient episode of Leave It To Beaver.

At the other extreme, there is poignant drama involving Laverne Cox’s Sophia, who at the end of last season was placed in solitary confinement. One gets the feeling this storyline may have been necessitated by Cox’s burgeoning career and her other projects — keeping her isolated and, in the first half of the season, deployed somewhat sparingly — but whenever the show gets around to Sophia, it deals with her movingly. The other serious theme introduced early on in this new season is the Black Lives Matter movement, which gets a typically quirky OITNB twist that I won’t give away.

The most welcome addition is Blair Brown playing a celebrity chef convicted of tax evasion who’ll remind you of Paula Deen. Brown’s Judy King, with her Southern drawl, arrives a famous person who the administration feels must be treated with care. Brown plays her with just the right amount of syrupy charm that barely disguises a will of iron.

I would say that if you love Orange Is The New Black, you’re going to be pleased with the way the new season unfolds. If you’re more skeptical of its ongoing strength, you may feel, as I did, that some of the show’s irritating habits have increased. The series has a tendency to stick a character with one primary trait and run it into the ground. As an example of this I’d choose Morello — the very good Yael Stone has been required to deliver her lines with that honking Noo Yawk accent for an eternity, and for her efforts she’s been rewarded with a storyline about her long-distance marriage that’s both repetitive and makes her character seem more dumb.

It’s this mixture of the shrewdly canny and the intentionally foolish that can make watching OITNB such an uneven experience.

Need an ‘OITNB’ refresher? Here’s our video recap:

Orange Is The New Black Season 4 starts streaming Friday on Netflix.