Warning: contains (some) Season 2 spoilers
While Season 1 of Orange Is the New Black was focused on our blond-haired blue-eyed WASP Piper Chapman, Season 2 of the prison comedy drama draws back to take a wider look at Litchfield’s prison community. Chapman’s personal dramas are still foregrounded above those of other inmates, but the broader spectrum means we get to delve deeper into characters’ psyches. Honestly, it’s probably the best thirteen hours of television you’re going to see this year.
Since it landed last year, Orange Is the New Black has been Netflix’s biggest, and most unexpected, hit. Compared to the digital distributor’s other original fare – the supernatural thriller of Hemlock Grove, the tense political drama of House of Cards and the reboot of classic sitcom Arrested Development – Orange Is the New Black is less commercial.
Its position as a Netflix show also means that it feeds right into the box-set consumerism mindset and can allow viewers to binge or appoint their own viewing schedule rather than wait for weekly instalments, which in turn means the episodes are less concerned with cliffhanger endings and instead with crafting an effective narrative.
For the uninitiated, OItNB is set in a women’s prison, but it’s that decidedly unmarketable premise which gives the series its greatest asset: variety. The second season sees a much clearer shift to an ensemble show, and while the opening episode focuses on Chapman (and ex-girlfriend Alex), the second one doesn’t feature the supposed lead at all, looking instead at the lives of the supporting cast.
Everyone has their favourite character, and every character acts like an individual. The multiple story arcs that weave through the season means that even if, say, Daya and Bennett’s romance holds no sway for you, you’ll carry on watching to see the burgeoning friendship between Sister Ingalls and Red, or the shagging contest between Nichols and Big Boo, or to laugh at new girl Brook Soso (who’s even more clueless and babbling than Piper was in the first series).
Familiar faces from the first season get their roles and backstories fleshed out in unexpected ways, making old friends feel like whole new people. And this is what sets OItNB apart from so many other shows – characters are not two-dimensional plot mechanics, but complicated and flawed people. Who’d guess from tough-talking Poussey Washington’s brusque exterior that she had a past as a Services kid growing up in Germany, and a doomed lesbian romance? Or how about Black Cindy’s former life as a corrupt TSA Agent? Humanising prisoners isn’t an easy task, but it’s one that OItNB manages with grace and aplomb.
The best moments are when these former lives play into the present plot. Taystee’s past, being adopted by a drug hustler named Vee, explain so perfectly the dynamic that exists between them when her former mama bear is returned to prison, and affects how a major plot arc plays out. While Chapman remains the main character, and we get a privileged insight into the lives of her family, friends and ex-fiancé Larry, her relationship dramas carry far less weight than the life-or-death antagonism which emerges within the prison walls.
It’s no easy task to make prisoners genuinely engaging, but OitNB‘s second season does that seamlessly – and even manages to make us sympathise with the prison guards. They all fall somewhere on the morally grey spectrum, from Healy’s homophobic apathy to Fischer’s ineptness and Mendez’s all-out insanity, but they’re presented as humans too. Everyone in Orange Is the New Black gets dealt a bad hand; people deal with it in different ways.
The show also accomplishes the rare task of passing the Bechdel test with flying colours, and having a genuinely diverse and engaging cast. Laverne Cox’s transgender ex-firefighter Sophia remains the highest profile, and most sensitive, portrayal of a trans* person on television, and the programme never shies away from complicated topics like sexuality, race, authority and family, and how they can all affect each other.
So, Orange Is the New Black isn’t for you if you’re narrow-minded or easily offended, as it’s not quite like any other show currently out there. But we’re students: we’re about as liberal as you can realistically get, and so we are in prime position to enjoy Orange is the New Black in all its deliberately complicated, deliciously messy glory.