If you were at the movies this past weekend, you were likely weeping over “The Fault In Our Stars” or thrilling to Tom Cruise in “Edge Of Tomorrow,” while small-screen viewers gathered around for the giant battle for The Wall in “Game Of Thrones.” But plenty of us were getting our binge on, because Friday brought one of the most hotly-anticipated events of the summer: the arrival of the entire second season of Netflix‘s “Orange Is The New Black.”
The show, based on author Piper Kerman‘s book about her transition from privileged WASP to minimum-security prison inmate following money laundering and drug trafficking charges, went under-the-radar at first unlike the streaming service’s other high-profile premieres like “House Of Cards,” “Arrested Development” and even “Hemlock Grove.” But word soon got around that it was by far the best of them, and it swiftly became a word-of-mouth hit, and one of the most critically acclaimed shows of 2013.
Eleven months on, the show returned for season two, and the good news is that it’s better than ever. Sure, it’s still not perfect —there’s still some tonal issues, and the flashbacks can occasionally be a little heavy-handed in their reflection of an episode’s overarching theme. But while not all of the weaknesses have been worked out, some have been, and many of the already-existing strengths have been built on. Having caught up on the show over the weekend, below you’ll find five reasons that season 2 of ‘OITNB’ is even better than its first run. Let us know what you think in the comments section. And spoilers are ahead, so be warned.
1. It’s more formally daring than before.
The first season of the show was written and filmed assuming that it would be rolled out week-on-week like any other series: only after it was in the can did Netflix decide that they’d be following the lead of “House Of Cards” and debuting the series all in one batch. So the second time around, creator Jenji Kohan, her writers, and the audience, know the game and what to expect, and the result is that it’s able to play with formula in some interesting ways. In general, the show follows its one-character-gets-a-flashback-per-episode structure again (cribbed from “Lost” to some degree, but just as effective here), but it immediately throws out a curveball, with a first episode focusing entirely on Piper and not featuring any other series regulars (except her ex-girlfriend and reason for imprisonment, Alex), hinting that the show could completely reboot itself this season. The writing’s good enough that when Piper checks into the new prison in Chicago, the new characters are rich and well-drawn enough that you almost believe that Kohan is about to rip it up and start again. It’s not quite that bold, but the second episode (which is Piper-free) also reminds you that the show could just as easily write out its ostensible lead and prove just as excellent. The macro-storytelling is much smarter this time around too: the season-long arcs, particularly the three-way struggle for power between Red, Gloria and new arrival Vee (see below), are much more satisfying and carefully plotted.
2. It digs wider and deeper into the best ensemble on TV
Many have described Taylor Schilling‘s Piper as the sort of trojan horse of “Orange Is The New Black,” using a photogenic upper-middle-class blonde lady as a way to sneak in stories that aren’t necessarily going to be an easy sell to TV-watching audiences, in the same way that “The Wire” disguised its wider socio-economic scope in the guise of a cop show. As a result, in season one, we were introduced to an expansive and diverse cast of fascinating characters, played by terrific actors known and unknown. And with season two, the writers have expanded that line-up, and found new notes to play with the ones we already knew. Almost everyone featured in a large part in the first season gets new texture, from Piper and Red, who has to tackle, and fight against, a growing irrelevance, to kooky-looking guard Fischer and semi-benign bureaucrat Caputo. Those who were virtually background players in the first season, like the sweet-natured Taystee, the lovelorn Poussey, kitchen boss Gloria or cancer-stricken Miss Rosa, have some real dramatic meat to sink their teeth into this time, as do the handful of new arrivals. By the end, it’s successfully juggling almost as many as characters as “Game Of Thrones,” and without having to stretch storylines to three minutes per episode while it does so.
3. It celebrates and explores female characters more than any other show right now
So far, the golden age of cable TV drama has been something of a sausage fest. There are the occasional exceptions (“Weeds” and “Nurse Jackie“), and some strong female characters, but the vast majority of the seminal shows of the last decade or two have dealt with men, from “The Sopranos” to “True Detective.” ‘OITNB’ is the major exception, and indeed, serves as something of a celebration of women, of all shapes, sizes and races. It’s hard to think of another series in the history of television that has as many women who actually look like everyday women, and who aren’t just there to serve as props during sex scenes. That’s not to say that the show’s lacking in the obligatory pay-cable nudity, but the male gaze is nowhere to be found here, and any nudity tends to be justified rather than intended to titillate. And it’s not just paying lip service to its characters: the show deals with issues that you suspect a male showrunner wouldn’t even dream of attempting, most notably a remarkable sub-plot in an early episode of season two discussing, in great detail, the anatomy of the vagina. You don’t get that on “Silicon Valley“…
4. Taylor Schilling is better than ever
If the Playlist office is anything to go by, the most divisive element of season one of the series was top-billed star Taylor Schilling. Once known almost solely for her turn in the Nicholas Sparks adaptation “The Lucky One,” Schilling won most of us over swiftly, but a few people found her performance shallow and a bit sitcom-y. But straight off the bat in season two, Schilling should put the criticisms to rest: she’s terrific in the showcase first episode, absolutely killing an emotional monologue about her assault on Pennsatucky in a way that should bring her plenty of Emmy attention (though not until 2015 — only season one is up for consideration this year). Schilling also has an admirable comic touch, and gets to flex that more often, and her lightness of touch sells the show’s tonal shifts, and makes the whole thing feel more palatable. We’d probably argue that there are better performances in the show (though it’s hard to pick favorites in this superb cast), but Schilling does anchor ‘OINTB,’ and generously enough that she’s happy to take a back seat when required.
5. Lorraine Toussaint
The show doesn’t go overboard with adding new characters, but when it does present someone new, it’s done it where it counts. Chatty bohemian Brooke So-So (Kimiko Glenn) is a gloriously irritating figure, but season two’s absolute gem is the ferocious, manipulative Vee, played by the great Lorraine Toussaint, who was so good a couple of years back in Ava DuVernay‘s “Middle Of Nowhere.” Season one slightly lacked a strong antagonist, with Pablo Schreiber‘s Pornstache being more pathetic than terrifying, but with Vee around (a heroin-dealing former mother figure to Taystee, and old adversary of Red’s, who’s reincarcerated in Litchfield at the end of episode two), season two has no such problem. Vee is smart, ruthless, hugely dangerous, and a real threat to many of the characters. And Toussaint is spectacularly good in the part, shifting on a dime between warm and matriarchal to chilly and brutal (her scene with Gloria, where she tearfully manipulates her way into getting some of her crew in the kitchen, deserves an Emmy all of its own). Sadly, *SPOILER*, it looks like we won’t have Toussaint around for season three, and we do worry that this suggests the kind of antagonist-of-the-season structure that grew tired so fast on “Dexter” and “Boardwalk Empire,” but we certainly relished having her around while she lasted, and look forward to her reteaming with DuVernay on the upcoming “Selma.”
Anything you think we missed? Do you agree that the series has gotten better, or do you find season 2 a step down? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.