'Orange Is the New Black': TV Review
The Netflix surprise gem comes back for a second season, better than ever.
There are so many wonderful elements that played a part in the freshman success of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, which begins its second season on Friday (or midnight, if you wish to start binging).
Easily the most surprising twist is that there was almost zero hype to it -- House of Cards having sucked up all the bandwidth and Arrested Development skimming off the rest of it. With nothing to expect, there was only the fuzzy, amorphous worry and wonder that filled the air over whether Jenji Kohan, who created Weeds, could do something with, of all things, a women’s prison drama.
Certainly, my expectations were low given that I was firmly in the camp that Weeds was a pretty great series for about three seasons, then went disastrously off the rails the rest of the way. Kohan, who walks a fine line of tapping into the available energy that bubbles around nearly over-the-top situations, combined with a women's prison concept that had no buzz and a whiff of "what the hell?" to it?
Yeah, low expectations.
But right out of the gate, with the pilot and then each successive episode, Kohan proved that she was working some real magic. Based on a true story (and a book) by Piper Kerman called Orange Is the New Black: My Year In A Women's Prison, the series revolved around the mostly fragile, mostly entitled Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling -- who, surrounded by an amazing cast, still somehow never gets the credit she deserves), a woman comfortable with expensive coffee as an upper-class New Yorker.
She's in love with Larry (Jason Biggs), and the duo seem to have a bright future of crime-free enclaves, elegant dinners and babies, when Piper's life changes. She's sentenced to 15 months in prison, charged with being a drug mule 10 years prior for her lesbian lover, Alex (Laura Prepon).
The first season was basically Piper's slow, horrified indoctrination into prison culture -- a fish very much out of water. While that held a particularly rich vein of both comedy and drama, what separated Orange Is the New Black was the vast and talented cast, the multitude of characters who crossed races, age, sexual preference, weight, education and world perspectives in a drastic, enthralling cross-pollination that never let the series grow stale and, strangely, made it more compelling each hour.
Orange Is the New Black became Netflix's critical darling, almost out of the blue, and re-established Kohan as a fearless writer who can make a lot of plot out of seemingly very little. What fueled the series in a way that few others using the visual conceit had managed prior was a very finessed use of flashbacks for even the most minor character. The audience learned who these women were -- often surprising in their depth and poignancy and, not unplanned, very different than the stereotypes Piper cast on them at first glance when she entered the prison.
Not only did this open up the storytelling in Orange Is the New Black, but it created any number of fan-favorite characters along the way. A bonus, of course, was that these were women barely seen on television, and Kohan managed to subvert stereotypes, cliches, race-blindness and triteness in a most effective manner.
Season two sees her raising that bar quite a bit, as the series shifts away from the Piper story arc to what's happening in the prison based on race. New characters stir the pot, and old ones branch out in newer directions.
But perhaps what;s most notable about the first part of season two is how Kohan is more confident in her storytelling because she laid the foundation of these diverse characters in season one while also keeping the A storyline -- Piper’s shift from church mouse to aggressive, survival-mode inmate -- intriguing. Now she can give more depth to the worldview that's present in Orange Is the New Black, one of the most vibrant, surprising dramas you'll find anywhere.
Will it go off the rails like Weeds? Who knows? (An educated guess would be "not this season.") There's no denying that Kohan works best without a net, but it certainly does present challenges creatively. That said, season two of Orange Is the New Black delivers immediately, stays relevant and entertaining, and gives the impression that it has learned a lot of life lessons inside the system.