02:02 - Source: CNN
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Along with “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black” helped put Netflix on the map as an original programming destination. The show enters its sixth season, however, looking like a fashion that’s faded out of style, one that hasn’t cleared the prison walls but which, in TV terms, has pretty clearly jumped the shark.

The sprawling cast of characters still produces some memorable moments, and the writers deliver (especially in the more absurd, throwaway dialogue) amusing lines. Those who make it to the end of the season will also find one almost-eerie parallel to recent real-world headlines.

Still, after being one of TV’s cool kids, “Orange” currently feels more like it’s simply hanging around and replaying old favorites than actually heading anywhere, limping instead of racing toward the finish.

The show picks up in the aftermath of the prison riot, which dragged on interminable through Season 5. In what feels like a sign of creative indulgence – and a general lack of urgency in the storytelling – the first episode begins with a surreal fantasy sequence that lasts more than five minutes.

The series then gradually sifts through the pieces of what transpired, with the increasingly daunting prospect of servicing its sprawling cast. That, too, has introduced a certain level of unevenness into the narrative, especially for those who, say, have lost interest in the frequently star-crossed romance of Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon), given all the impediments that have been thrown at them.

Without giving anything away, the new season also includes a tribal component within the prison, and more abusive behavior on the part of the guards. The struggle continues on various fronts, in fact, regarding the dehumanizing aspects of prison life.

In hindsight, Netflix might not have done “Orange” any favors by extending the program a three-season renewal prior to Season 5. The comfort of knowing the show had all those episodes to fill – theatrically allowing the writers to arc long-term plans – has taken the pressure off the maintain the kind of pacing that defined the first few seasons, placing more emphasis on the quirky aspects than the big picture.

Netflix doesn’t provide user data, but “Orange is the New Black” still has its loyalists and a gaudy arsenal of talent at its disposal, presenting a near-equal, not-easily-categorized mix of comedy and drama. But in the last two seasons, there’s a nagging sense that the show is less binge-worthy, fading into a pallid version of what initially made it one of Netflix’s signature series – a verdict merely reinforced by its tepid showing in the latest round of Emmy nominations.

Like “House of Cards,” which is preparing for its final season, “Orange” will always possess additional significance thanks to its role in elevating what was deemed possible for streaming TV. Creatively, though, the series appears to have written itself into a prison of its own making, to the point where until there’s an announced end date, it’s hard to see a completely satisfying way out.

“Orange is the New Black” returns July 27 on Netflix.