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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black: Season 2

My wife and I tore through the first season of Orange is the New Black in about a week last October.  (Click here for my review.)  It’s been a long wait for season two!

There are some shows that build gradually to popularity (like Seinfeld), while others explode onto the scene right out of the gate (like Lost). For that latter type of show, the second season can be quite a challenge for the men and women behind the scenes at the show.  There’s a huge challenge to match the excitement and success of that first hit season.  Often, the particular alchemy that made a show successful can be hard to define, even for the key creative people who worked on it, and it can be a harder than expected challenge to capture that lightning in a bottle.  I’ve seen many shows have a great first season and then stumble.

So I was curious, a year later, whether the second season of Orange is the New Black would be able to maintain the quality of the first year.

For me, there’s no question that, watching season two, some of my initial excitement for the show had worn off.  There wasn’t that same thrill at the originality of the premise, nor that same sense of discovery of this new show and all its wonderfully rich characters.  But, of course, that’s to be expected.  The real question is, with that first blush of enthusiasm past, did the second season of Orange is the New Black have as much enjoyment to offer as the first?

I think it did, and watching this second season unfold I was interested to see some of the ways in which creator Jenji Kohan and her fellow creative voices were starting to position the show and its characters for the possibility of a long run.  Some of those ways were a little too writerly obvious.  For instance, early in the season Piper commits perjury in an effort to protect her on-again/off-again flame Alex Voss, which leads to the possibility of an extended prison sentence for her.  This was a little too on the nose for me.  (If she commits more crimes, she can spend more years in the prison, so we can have more seasons of the show!)  But other adjustments were far more clever.

It’s become clear to me, in watching the second season, that the show’s main weakness is that its main character — the white, privileged Piper Chapman — is possibly the least interesting character on the show.  I found her love-her/hate-her ups-and-downs with Alex to be increasingly annoying as the season wore on.  (Something which Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) enjoyably called her towards the end of the season.)  Piper’s problems seem very small-scale compared to the plights of the other inmates (such as Miss Rosa, the elderly Hispanic woman dying of cancer, who could perhaps be saved by a medical treatment the prison refuses to pay for).

As a result, it was interesting to see the way in which season two pushed Piper somewhat into the background, while giving more time and focus to several of the other inmates of Litchfield penitentiary.  Can anyone watching the show say that Piper’s story was more interesting than that of Red (Kate Mulgrew)’s conflict with Vee?  Or of the arc of the relationship between Taystee and Poussey?  Come on.  I don’t think Piper is a bad character (and Taylor Schilling is great in the role), but from episode to episode I was far more interested and engaged in these other characters’ stories.

The catalyst for the majority of season two’s plot-lines was the introduction of Vee (Lorraine Tousaint).  That Vee’s backstory connected her to so many of the regular characters (Taystee, Red, etc.) was a bit of a stretch, but Vee was a terrific character, a nice bit of dynamite to blow up the character relationships (giving Red her biggest challenge in the show so far, getting in between Taystee and Poussey, etc.) and to give the show some extra danger and narrative momentum.  I suppose I should complain at the introduction of a through-and-through villain, whereas one of the great things about season one was how well-rounded all the characters were, and how even the people who seemed fearsome to Piper in episode one were gradually revealed to be well-rounded human beings.  But Vee was such a delicious villain I really can’t muster any enthusiasm for a complaint.  She was a villain you “love to hate” if ever there was one.  A fantastic character.

And well needed, since in season two I think familiarity with all the characters had caused the show to lose some of the danger and scariness it had in season one.  In the show’s beginning and Piper’s early days in prison, she and we were scared of almost anyone.  Remember when we found Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) scary?  That’s almost comical now.  I wondered, in my review of season one, whether the violent events of the season one finale were signaling a shift for the show into more dramatic/tragic territory.  While the show is definitely tragic at times, I found that season two over-all had a fairly light tone.  I like that about the show.  It’s not so light that the drama doesn’t land, but it also makes it palatable and often fun to be with these characters, even though their situations are so shitty and f–ed up.  If this show was just a straight, sad/serious drama, I don’t think I could bear to watch it.  That, I think, is the secret to the show’s success.

Some other thoughts on season two:

I liked the way they played with the format in the opening episode, starting off the season by showing us Piper transferred to a different prison without ever showing us any other familiar character from Litchfield (other than Alex and Larry’s dad).  Then, the second episode took place back at Litchfield, without Piper’s making an appearance.  Both episodes worked really well.

I loved the arc given to Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) in this season.  It was wonderful to see her in a dominant social position for the first time, even though we knew her association with Vee was not going to end well.  I loved the discovery of what Vee’s endgame plan was for Crazy Eyes at the end of the season.  I loved Crazy Eyes’, well, craziness in her interrogation scenes in the finale, and that last scene of her bawling in her cubicle was so poignant and sad.  Wonderful stuff.

Some great stuff with Fig (Alysia Reiner) and Caputo (Nick Sandow) this year.  I don’t feel that I was that interested in Caputo’s character in season one, but in season two he really became a favorite.  Seeing his childlike joy at besting Fig at the end of the season was hysterical (with a tinge of sadness since I feel pretty confident that, when season three begins, Caputo will no longer be top dog).

Nicky’s attempt to win her sex-contest with Boo by seducing officer Fischer (Lauren Lapkus) was hysterical.  I really liked Fischer and was sorry to see her exit the show.  I wonder if we’ll see her return in season 3? (Just as Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber) did, briefly, here in season 2.  Speaking of which, is that really the last we’ll ever see of Pornstache??)

I loved the glimpses of “Black Cindy” Hayes (Adrienne Moore)’s back-story as a TSA agent.  Oy vey!

Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) was so loathsome in season one, but her character went in some interesting directions in season two.  I loved her scene with Healy (Michael Harney) late in the season, when the two of them were discussing lesbianism.  Who’d have thought that Pennsatucky could ever be the LEAST crazy person in the room??  So great.

Diaz (Dascha Polanco) and Burset (Laverne Cox) were pushed to the background a bit in season two.  Hope to see more of them in season three.

When I read on-line, soon after finishing watching season one last year, that Alex (Laura Prepon) would only be appearing in a few episodes this season, I was very disappointed and couldn’t imagine how the show could make that work.  Well, bravo to Jenji Kohan and her collaborators because I didn’t miss Alex at all this season.  They made her sporadic appearances feel perfectly natural, and not like they were having to stretch to work out ridiculous reasons for her absences.  I’d be happy for Alex to be more involved in season three (judging by the events of the finale, it certainly looks like she’s on her way back to Litchfield), but I’d also be totally fine if she remains a sporadically recurring character.  Major credit to the show’s writers for making this work so well.

My least favorite aspect of the show this season was the flirtation-leading-to-hooking-up of Larry (Jason Biggs) and Polly (Maria Dizzia).  That just seemed ridiculous, even for the self-absorbed characters those two had been shown to be.  I love both Mr. Biggs and Ms. Dizzia’s work on the show, but that plot development felt like one-step-too-far into silly soap-opera territory to me.

OK, time to wrap this up.  I love how layered this show is, how deep the ensemble is and how many fascinating characters they have developed.  I hope the show continues to deepen and explore these characters, with or without Alex.  (And even with or without Piper.  I would not be sad for Piper’s term to finish up after the next season, and for the show to continue without her.  That certainly worked OK in the season’s second episode!)

I am still thoroughly enjoying spending time in this world and with these characters (flawed and prone to criminal behavior though they all may be!) and I eagerly await season three.

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