I quite enjoyed the first season Orange is the New Black, but the second season of this Netflix original series is even more addictive and compelling. It’s also, thankfully, less problematic. Jenji Kohan persists in her tendency to push the envelope on language and shock value, of course, but overall I think its handling of troubling subject matter is more sure-handed this time around.
Transformed by her turbulent early months in Litchfield Prison, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) starts season two with an unsettling adventure – she’s pulled out of solitary confinement after a violent confrontation with another inmate, only to be delivered to another, even scarier prison. It all feeds into the wider story of her incarceration, of course, but Piper’s plight – in particular, her complex relationships with horrible exes Alex (Laura Prepon) and Larry (Jason Biggs) – is merely an anchoring sideshow in the wider world of prison politics, which of course circles back to Litchfield. Ousted from control of the kitchen, Red (Kate Mulgrew) is forced to seek a new mode of commercial power– and while she finds it, she also finds a rival in seasoned convict Vee Parker (Lorraine Toussaint), a manipulative dealer who’s even more ruthless than Red is. This rivalry ultimately escalates into a Cold War between the inmates along racial lines. There’s also a broader mystery about corruption and mismanagement in the prison administration, where cynical opportunist Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner) butts heads with angling, quasi-idealist Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow). Toussaint and Reiner both bring brilliantly deplorable villainy to the table this season.
Meanwhile, the individual stories of the inmates orbit around these two central plotlines, and there are plenty of entertaining backstories in the Lost-style flashbacks, which add depth and richness to the lives of the many characters. Particularly likeable this season are Poussey (Samira Wiley), Rosa (Barbara Rosenblatt), and Morello (Yael Stone), plus tree-hugging newcomer Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn).
Orange is the New Black continues to break important ground as a source of unusually rich roles for women and people of color, and it doesn’t shy away from confronting touchy issues – while never losing its sense of humor. I’ve read criticism of its very premise – that Piper is a white, entitled, middle-class voyeur capitalizing on the misery of the true unfortunates – and, by extension, so are the show’s white, entitled, middle-class viewers. That’s a fair point, but I also think the show is aware of what it’s doing – even addressing the issue directly – while also critiquing the systems that disempower and victimize these women. Meanwhile, Piper – our stand-in character –is one of the less sympathetic inmates, often taken to task for her awfulness. Schilling’s performance is brilliant antihero stuff – she’s one of those great TV protagonists you can respond to enough to stay near, while truly savoring your dislike for her. It’s a tricky balancing act, and she pulls it off nicely.
Criticisms aside – the verisimilitude of its prison setting (which occasionally strikes me as a bit too cheery and lax) is another – it’s still a worthwhile show. It has its flaws, but the bottom line is it’s just a wildly entertaining show, with style, confidence, and a spectacular and diverse cast, that can bust you up laughing one moment and take your breath away the next. Great season of television.