In all of the promotion leading up to the premiere of season two, the stars of Netflix’s hit series “Orange is the New Black” have been tight-lipped about any potential plot developments we can expect upon the show’s return. The one common term used? “Things get deeper.” Based on the first six episodes of the hit prison drama created by Jenji Kohan, that promise has been more than kept.
Season two picks up about a month after the events of the season one finale, and the premiere makes the unconventional choice to first focus all of its attention on Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). The upper-middle-class Brooklyn-ite’s one-time dabbling in drug trafficking may have landed her in a federal penitentiary, but it’s also her actions in the season one finale that drive the first episode.
The premiere is thus a solid continuation from the first season’s cliffhanger finale, supporting Netflix’s habit of treating its shows as ongoing narratives. (See, for example, the way season one of “House of Cards” flows directly into season two.) The downside is that if you were looking forward to reconnecting with the rest of the show’s rich cast, you’re going to have to wait.
But fortunately, thanks to the Netflix system of putting everything up at once, you don’t have to wait a whole week. The rest of the season brings us back to Litchfield Correctional Facility, where all our own friends are waiting. Most importantly, several minor characters, whose backstories were hinted at in the first season, finally get episodes revealing key elements of what brought them to prison — some of which are full of surprises.
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Important to “Orange’s” evolution is this: Season one, in the long run, was mostly focused on Piper and her evolution from WASP to true inmate. Even though the premiere is almost entirely focused on Piper, so far in season two the show is much more settled into a true ensemble vibe.
“Orange is the New Black” remains a celebration of diversity — diversity of color, diversity of sexuality, diversity of age, diversity of body types. The fact that a high-prestige drama from the same source as Emmy-winning “House of Cards” has a majority-female and minority cast alone makes it one of the more exciting shows of recent years, and worth celebrating accordingly.
The cast remains solid, with some new faces to liven things up. While it’s a pleasure to see ’90s favorite Lori Petty on screen again, however briefly — remember how great she was in “A League of Their Own”? — the most striking addition to the series is Lorraine Toussaint as Vee. The choice to bring on a new major character was already a smart one (given how a few were lost along the way last year), but Toussaint is a magnetic presence who quickly escalates the drama as she manipulates her way into the system. It’s quite clear that the machinations stirring behind Vee’s calm exterior have real possibility of exploding in an ugly way.
That tension has always been one of the show’s major strengths — a lack of fear about pulling its punches. The status quo seems ready to explode at any moment already, and things should get even more intense going forward.
This season does escalate the sexual content to almost an extreme level. Even fans of season one and the non-prudish will be surprised by the increase in graphic nudity and sex — for example, two characters indulge in a contest over cunnilingus which stretches over two episodes (and while season one was pretty much female-only, this season does add some male nudity to the mix — an impressive feat for a show about a woman’s prison).
The show’s comedic undertones from season one aren’t lacking, though nothing on the level of the mythic chicken, and some of the choices made by the writers aim for absurdity and just come off as strange. However, it might be too early to judge — it remains to be seen how those choices shake out over the rest of the season.
For “Orange” is really a show to appreciate in seasons — one of the advantages of binge-viewing is that you get a real sense of theme, which it’s rich with. At its core, the series is a family drama, a strange dysfunctional family drama that captures a real sense of what it means to find your people in an unexpected place.
It’s also a family drama that doesn’t skimp on manipulation — the women of Litchfield are constantly trapped in subtle power struggles. But much of that comes from how many are ultimately lost, in search of any sort of substitute familial connection they can make. Which proves to be the secret behind getting the audience’s sympathy for a group of criminally imprisoned women (some of whom have done and will do terrible things); a core element of humanity is the search for finding one’s place in the world. Prison might not be an ideal place to do that search, but for some of these women, it’s the best chance they have.