Orange is the New Black came roaring back for a second season having lost none of the momentum of the first, and it remains one of the very strongest, most unique shows on television- unique for the brand of show it is (that is, a mix of comedy and melodrama that often has people confused as to what genre it belongs in) and unique in the kinds of stories it wants to tell. Particularly those of an almost entirely female cast, women who are ostracized by society and really never paid much attention to in any form of media. Black, white, latino, lesbian and working class women of all ages are spotlighted on this show, and these are people who we never see represented on mainstream television. Jenji Kohan is committed to telling these stories, and for that reason she's one of TV's best showrunners.
I personally have no problem with labeling OITNB a comedy, even though many see it as a drama. For me it's a heightened, darkly comedic, over the top version of life in a women's prison (this isn't exactly realistic, even if the pre-prison lives of the inmates might be more so). The dialogue is sparkling with punchlines and witty zingers; the repartee alone makes it seem like a laugh out loud comedy, especially when you compare it to heavy, intense dramas like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. The second season gets off to a Piper-centric start, as Taylor Schilling's character is temporarily shipped off to a Chicago prison to testify at the trial of her ex-girlfriend Alex's drug dealer boss. We spend the whole hour with Piper as she adjusts to life in this new environment, coming in contact with brand new inmates who all want to push her around, but happily this year, Piper is no longer the wide-eyed, fearful prisoner. Instead she's more or less of a seasoned vet, especially when she gets back to Litchfield to face the old crew. After the premiere she transitions to becoming more of a supporting player in this massive ensemble cast, but I was actually very impressed with Schilling this year, much more so than last season, as all the material she was given she played with supreme confidence and a perfect air of comedic timing and delivery (her immediate reaction to finding out about fiance Larry's infidelity includes some of the best lines of the season). She's now become a superb lead for this cast, and if I wasn't as interested in her as I was the other inmates last year, that's all been turned around with what she showed off this season.
But the rest of the cast remains top-notch as well, with many of the characters given more depth, including some of the two dimensional ones from last season. Kate Mulgrew is still perhaps the MVP though, the former kitchen chef turned gardening aficionado, as Red schemes her way back into the good graces of the girls with whom she'd fallen out of favor, and manages to institute a new way of smuggling goods into the prison to rebuild her status as the go to boss. But it took her a while, and along the way Red's interactions with Piper, Healy, Kaputo and virtually any inmate she came across (Sister Ingalls even) are gold, with the emotionally complicated and sympathetic Red serving as mother figure for anyone she has the chance to dole out advice to, no matter how begrudgingly. Others we saw new sides to this year were Gloria, new kitchen boss and head of the Latina outfit (the prison groups are still split along racial and ethnic lines), Crazy Eyes, aka Suzanne (played wonderfully by Uzo Aduba, now bumped to regular) and Poussey (Samira Wiley), who gave a heartbreaking performance as she dealt with her unrequited love for Tastee (Danielle Brooks, also now a regular) and is the only one of the girls in her group who can see through the new predator in the prison, Vee, the older woman who sets her sights on Suzanne and devious plans towards Red.
The only storylines this year that turned a bit dull were Daya's ongoing pregnancy and affair with the prison guard Bennett, but that's really just because there's no where to go with that relationship at this point, so their back and forth got a bit repetitive as we continue to wait for the baby to be born (she's still just three or four months along, if that). But any time we spend time with someone who feels like a weak spot (I've never really like counselor Healy for example, who tried to redeem himself after failing to stop Piper's assault last season), it's not long enough to get truly bored, and we're quickly tossed into another relationship and story that has more spark. A really good episode this year was one in which we finally got the backstory of Merillo, who seemed last year like the sweetest girl in the prison, yet turns out to have one of the most disturbing backgrounds of all the inmates and might literally be insane and dangerous, deserving of her incarceration when some of the other prisoners are shown to be victims of the system in many ways.
The main arc of the season involved Vee, as I mentioned earlier, a new character played by Lourraine Toussaint, who was Tastee's foster mother, as revealed early in a flashback episode, and has now landed in the prison with her. A drug dealer on the outside, Vee was a dangerous bully inside the prison walls and out, her past associations with Red revealing a truly disturbed psychopath who likes to hold others under her thumb. Toussaint played the role well, but Vee turned out to be a little too one-dimensional compared to most of the other characters, and her ultimate resolution was less satisfying than it could have been, simply because it was a bit frustrating that it took so long for Tastee and her friends to catch on to her obvious psychotic nature. Maybe if the arc hadn't lasted the whole season- or, if it had to, that it wound up including an outsider. PIper, for example, ostensibly our lead, yet someone who was never even brought in on this storyline, which came to dominate the episodes leading up to the finale. Still, Toussaint gave a great performance as this pretty despicable character, and I hope she'll be remembered come Emmy time next season (although this is where the confusion between comedy and drama becomes a problem- even though Orange is a funny show, Vee as a character is played as a straight villain and submitting this dramatic performance under the comedy categories will surely hurt her chances, since committing assault and murder can't really be construed as funny).
The richness and complexity of all the characters on Orange is the New Black, and the ongoing struggles of the administration to simply work the prison system at all liken the show to a work of Charles Dickens in my estimation, and that's really not an exaggeration. Shining a light on those who are most often ignored, peppering a huge cast of characters with witty dialogue and distinguishingly funny personality traits, while at the same time using his art to make various social critiques is not unlike what Jenji Kohan is doing with this show, and the fact that something so ambitious is so successful is a true wonder to behold. I could never get tired of watching it, and could go on and on about the various moments that stood out in the second season (Piper's furlough, Miss Rosa's battle with cancer, Kaputo's triumph over the evil assistant warden Fig in attempting to better prison conditions for the women, and Piper's final telling off of Larry and Polly for their affair behind her back are just some of my favorites). I was disappointed that Taryn Manning was somewhat sidelined this year after being so great last time, but hey sometimes you just can't fit every cast member into 13 episodes (and even she gets a couple of good moments here). I originally thought I would miss Laura Prepon, who was only in four episodes this season as Alex, but that turned out not to be the case at all, as the show has so many potential characters to explore that her absence was barely noticed (and it looks like she's coming back next year anyway, so here's looking forward to that). There was certainly no sophomore slump for this series, as it was a total success the second time around, and I can't wait for the third. Bring it on.