Captive audience: ‘Orange is the New Black’ returns with a strong second season

By JIM SABATASO | STAFF

Try as I might, I just can’t bring myself to binge watch Orange is the New Black. While the rest of the Internet has already devoured all 13 episodes of the Netflix original series, which debuted its second season June 6, I have decided to take my time. To date, I’ve only watched six episodes — shameful by today’s standards.

With House of Cards, another Netflix original, the binge was easy. The quicker I consumed episodes meant the less time I had to think about how utterly preposterous it all was. Don’t get me wrong; HoC is a fun, beautifully shot, and well-acted show, but it’s popcorn — addictive, easily consumed, and lacking in nutritional value. By the time season two rolled around, I had forgotten much of season one, and I didn’t particularly care.

OITNB is different. It feels like real TV. More than any other series, OITNB has proven that Netflix is capable of producing relevant premium television that can hold its own with Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and True Detective. And it has done so with an almost entirely female cast — a welcome response to the glut of brooding male leads on currently on cable.

But dudes who dismiss OITNB as a “chick” show are missing out. Yes, it’s set inside a women’s correctional facility and all the leads characters are female, but this ain’t Lifetime. OITNB is earnest, gritty, and, at times, brutal in its depiction of life behind bars. Sometimes it’s hard to watch, but just as often, you can’t look away.

At the center of the series is Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), a waspy, entitled child of privilege whose wild past comes back to bite her. The show follows Chapman and her fellow inmates’ through the bleak daily struggle of prison life intercut with frequent flashbacks that shade in various characters’ backstories.

Inspired by a true story, reality quickly gives way to fiction in the hands of series creator Jenji Kohan. Kohan’s previous series, Weeds, dealt with similar issues of a sheltered female being thrust into and ultimately thriving in a criminal world. But where Weeds went off the rails, turning into an increasingly farcical tale of bad decisions and worse parenting, OITNB shows Kohan maturing as a showrunner and exercising focus and restraint. Fortunately, absurd plotlines and sloppy storytelling are nowhere to be found here.

While Kohan’s over-the-top tendencies do occasionally creep in here and there, they are fewer and far less egregious. Case in point, the character of Soso (Kimiko Glenn), a new doe-eyed inmate, is a fairly obvious juxtaposition to how much Chapman has changed since she first arrived. While Chapman initially attempts to offer Soso guidance, she quickly cuts her off when her neediness becomes too much.

But it’s in humor where Kohan stumbles most frequently. OITNB is a surprising funny show despite it setting, but the comedy works better in smaller moments where the jokes spring organically from the characters. When the jokes become too broad, they fall flat. One episode-long subplot about the inmates’ confusion about the workings of the female anatomy feels forced and silly, like a writers’ room conversation that someone really wanted to work into the show.

Season two picks up in the aftermath of a fight in which Chapman may or may not have killed a fellow inmate. Throughout the first season, we watched Chapman adapt to life on the inside as she pushed back against warnings that prison changes people. By season’s end, after numerous defeats, missteps, and humiliations, she learns the hard way what it takes to survive.

If season one broke Chapman, season two has hardened her. Returning after weeks in solitary confinement following the fight, she goes about reclaiming her possessions from inmates with an authority that her earlier self never would have dared.

But has prison changed Chapman, or merely allowed her to embrace her true self? It’s a question the show has been asking since the beginning of the series, and one that Kohan seems to enjoy. Weeds took Nancy Botwin on a very similar arc across its eight seasons. Kohan really does have a knack for creating flawed female antiheroes every bit as unlikable as Walter White and Don Draper.

And Chapman fits the bill. Through flashbacks and her interactions with her sometime-journalist fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs), we see a self-absorbed, manipulative person who treats other people as pawns in her own game. This season when Larry asks her to be his mole for a story he is working on about the prison, she accuses Larry of being the moon, reflecting the light of bodies while producing none of its own. Larry quickly points out Piper is the sun in her metaphor, at center of the solar system burning up anything that gets too close.

But while we may be rooting against the protagonists, it’s in the secondary characters where we find the more compelling stories. This show is so lousy with excellent performances it’s impossible to give them all their due here. Kudos goes to Kohan and her casting department for assembling such a fantastic group of actors.

Danielle Brooks and Uzo Aduba are once again standouts as Taystee and Crazy Eyes. Lorraine Toussaint joins the cast this season as Vee, an imposing mother figure from Taystee’s past intent on putting the black inmates back at the top of the food chain, and in direct conflict with the prison’s Latina faction.

Red, meanwhile — played by the equally imposing Kate Mulgrew — has been making moves of her own, quietly rebuilding her contraband empire since being deposed as queen of the kitchen in season one. Red’s fall from power has allowed Mulgrew to show a more sympathetic side of the character that’s been enjoyable to watch.

While Larry continues to be a dithering layabout, bass-playing Assistant Warden Joe Caputo (played by Nick Sandow) has become far more interesting between seasons. Still a sleazeball — his band’s name is Side Boob — he actually does care about the wellbeing of the inmates, as evidenced by his frustration that he can’t do more them, and his increasing willingness to challenge his superiors on their behalf.

That kind of empathy is a consistent presence this season. As relationships develop, cracks in the characters’ hard exteriors have begun to show as clearly as the literal cracks in the prison’s crumbling infrastructure. The more the characters learn about each other, the more the come trust, care for, and depend one on another.

And the deeper we delve into the lives of these characters, the more we understand the circumstances that led them to prison. More than once over the course of this series, I have cursed out the American correctional system for its unfairness, brutality and utter lack of humanity.

The characters may be fictional, but the circumstances are anything but. And Kohan manages to deliver this bitter pill in a series that is heartbreaking, humorous, and sincere — a daring feat that makes Orange is the New Black such a compelling, ambitious series.

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