One of the real surprises last year in the world of pop culture was the success of the Netflix original program Orange Is The New Black. Based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, it chronicles the adjustment of an educated and upper-class white woman to life in prison after she is convicted of a crime from her past. While this is ostensibly Piper’s (Taylor Schilling) story, one of the real strength of the first season of Orange Is The New Black was the supporting cast of characters that become a part of Piper’s life once she goes to prison. Led by Kate Mulgrew and Natasha Lyonne, the talented cast of actresses created fully realized and interesting characters in their sometimes sporadic and limited screen time. The first season of Orange Is The New Black was an absolute delight; it wound up on the top of my best of list for 2013 and I was anxiously awaiting the second season appearing on Netflix. I hoped that success wouldn’t ruin the formula and that the show wouldn’t suffer from the sophomore slump.
I’ve been so busy lately that I didn’t have the opportunity to binge watch the new episodes of Orange Is The New Black the same way that I did the first season; unlike last time, it took me several weekends to get through all of the new episodes (a lifetime in my world). I was relieved to see that the show didn’t lose any quality during its hiatus and came back as strong as ever. In fact, by shifting the focus away from Piper to the secondary character in the second season, I’d argue that the show improved slightly. When I finally finished the last episode of the second season, I was so disappointed that I would have to wait another year to spend more time with these characters. It was the same feeling I had after finishing the initial run of episodes, which means that they are doing something right.
It is important to clarify that unlike some people that watch the show, I don’t dislike Piper. Yes, she can be frustrating and her backstory is not necessarily as interesting as some of the other characters, but I think that Taylor Schilling does a nice job of making Piper relatable and she serves as a stand-in for most of the audience as we explore a world that I’m guessing is unfamiliar to most viewers. Her centrality to the first season was necessary as they built the world that surrounds Piper, but now that the foundation of the story and been established it was smart for the writers to branch out more and explore some of the more interesting dynamics that exists in the prison. At this point, Piper is fairly well adapted to her new life as a prisoner and moving her occasionally to the periphery of the show allowed her story time to breathe and for the viewers to miss her. I found myself far more invested in Piper’s story when I had some time away from it; I still think that the storyline involving Larry and Polly was one of the weaker narratives of the second season, but less Piper means that other characters got their chance to shine.
And shine they did. While we got hints of what these women were capable of during the first season, they really raised the bar in the second with some very compelling storylines. I was constantly surprised by the direction that many of the stories took – especially Morello’s storyline. That one just broke my heart and came as a complete and utter surprise. I was excited to finally learn more about Sister Jane and what she did to land herself in jail. New characters were seamlessly integrated into the cast; I had to remind myself that Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) had not always been a part of this world. Her relationship with Red (Mulgrew) was fascinating to watch and just when you thought that you had the two of them figured out, a new interesting wrinkle would emerge. Really, everyone on the show was fantastic, but I have to give the MVP to Uzo Aduba who plays Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. She was great in the first season, but given more to do in the second she really upped her game and stole just about every scene that she was in. The scene where she talks to her mop is hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. Kudos to her on insuring that what could be a one-note character has real depth and layers.
I appreciate that Orange Is The New Black treats all of the characters with respect and dignity; even the characters that are terrible people have some redeeming qualities or moments where you feel badly for them. I was not expecting to cheer the return of one particular character to the show, but when he finally turned up I was glad to see him again. Really, the only character that I could do with significantly less of is Piper’s finance Larry (Jason Biggs). I am not sure if I have simply tired of his character, who is among the more boring of the cast, or if my inherent disdain for Biggs the person has tainted the character. Whatever the reason, I wouldn’t be too upset if Larry got himself killed. They should give his time to the awesome Laverne Cox, who sadly was underutilized in this second season. I hope they focus more on her in the future. It is also refreshing to see a cast as diverse as this one; sadly, you don’t see many female driven projects that also have the degree of racial and sexual diversity that this show has. The show also isn’t afraid to focus on older women: Vee and Red are major players despite the fact that most programs and movies would dismiss them as being “too old.” Orange Is The New Black proves that people of all backgrounds will watch compelling stories about people who are different than themselves. Hollywood should take note.
Some other thoughts:
- Laura Prepon is mostly absent this season and I have to say that I really didn’t miss Alex all that much. That’s not a knock on Prepon – who will reportedly have a larger presence in season three – but the void left by her absence was easily filled by the other actresses.
- Stop what you are doing – Sideboob is a real band.
- There’s a lot of downtime in prison; here’s the annotated list of the books that are seen on the first two seasons of Orange Is The New Black.
- I was pretty proud of myself that I predicted the reveal in prison administrator’s story.
- In the down time between season one and season two, I read Piper Kerman’s memoir. It is very different from the show, but still an interesting read.
- The show deals with a lot of serious stuff, but if you haven’t been watching it is also really, really funny.
- Here’s an interesting discovery – Annie Golden, who plays the mute kitchen worker Norma, was a singer who frequented CBGB back in the day.
- I was psyched that not only did Albany get a shout out in the second season, but so did my old stomping ground of Oneonta.
I’m tremendously relieved that Orange Is The New Black continued to be the great show that is was when it first debuted. By drawing from their deep bench of excellent actresses, the second season’s shift in focus widened the scope of the show and more fully explored the different characters working and residing at Litchfield. If you aren’t watching the show, I can’t recommend it enough. I’m really bummed that I have to wait another year for more episodes; losing Orange Is The New Black and Game of Thrones at the same time has put a severe damper on my summer television schedule. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us for season three.
The first two seasons of Orange Is The New Black are currently streaming on Netflix.