TV Review: Orange is the New Black Season 2 | Drama, Comedy, and Heart Uncaged

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Of the original Netflix shows, Orange is the New Black is the one that probably has had the most influence and cultural impact. Created by Jenji Kohan of Weeds fame, the show followed thirty-something yuppie Piper Chapman (Taylor Shilling) as a past crime catches up with her and lands her in Litchfield Women’s Penitentiary for fifteen months. The series follows Piper as she begins to adjust to the new environment. Her upbringing clashes with the prisoners, and forces her to reexamine herself and figure out who she is.The first season, released on July 11, 2013, quickly attracted the attention of Netflix subscribers. Through the character of Piper and the other female prisoners in Litchfield, the show revealed a wide variety of stories, many of which rarely appear on television. This was a show about women, and told stories of women from every race, orientation, economic background, and so on. This was a show that represented all the women who generally wouldn’t get their stories told, and this resonated with audiences, winning a People’s Choice Award and a GLAAD Media Award.

As a result, there was plenty of anticipation in store for the second season of the series. Released on June 6, 2014, Orange is the New Black’s second season continued the trend of the first season while expanding on greater issues within the prison system and allowing more character to get their time in the spotlight.

In the first season, each episode featured flashbacks for one character or one pair of characters, detailing how certain events and choices they made in life would land them in prison. While not every flashback episode showed how these women landed in prison, they did allow for more insight into the character. This helped add dimension to characters like prison grouch Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), Russian cafeteria chef and mobster Red (Kate Mulgrew), and transgender inmate Sophia (Laverne Cox). Because of this format, the viewer got to see that these characters were more than their archetypes would suggest and became a lot more human as a result.

Season 2 continues this trend. Some characters from the first season, like Piper, Red, and Piper’s drug smuggling ex-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon), gain additional flashbacks, but it’s also now where characters who previously didn’t have insight in the first season gain more dimension. We finally learn the truth about Lorna’s (Yael Stone) fiance, we learn the extent of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren’s (Uzo  Aduba) upbringing, and even dive into minor characters who barely had screentime in the first season, such as Gloria (Selenis Levya) and Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore).What Season 2 does differently than Season 1 is allow more a lot more change within the prison system, whether it be in the hands of the people running the prison or within the small groups within the prisoner sect. This is even helped with a simple cast change. In Season 2, Alex was removed from the main cast, appearing in only four episodes. Because of this, a new character, Yvonne “Vee” Parker (Lorraine Toussaint), is added, and radically alters many of the storylines in the season.

The addition of Vee reflects one of the biggest conflicts of the season. Vee was a former prisoner, with ties to many of the older inmates and a few of the younger ones. Vee represents a lot of what happens when old traditions begin to appear in the new world, and the chaos that can unfold from this change. Vee brings in tobacco and heroin, something that brings back addictions and pleasures many inmates have had deprived in Litchfield, while also adding to the war between the inmates in power, namely rival contraband runner Red and kitchen head Gloria.

What does make Season 2 stand out as well is just how many issues about the prison industrial complex arise that weren’t as discussed previously. In the last season, inmate Taystee (Danielle Brooks), received parole, but landed back in Litchfield when she failed to adjust to the real world. This season does look a lot more at what the women want to do outside of the prison, but more importantly, what they can’t do. Taystee uses the Mock Job Fair to try and find herself gainful employment after her release, Red tries to keep tabs on her family’s store, and new inmate Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) attempts to continue her political activism in prison.

Something that does make the series interesting is that every woman in the prison has a story, and even if the show doesn’t give any prominence to the character, they still get a full arc. In the first season, one prisoner named Maria Ruiz had a subplot in one episode where she went into labor in prison. This season, Ruiz’s story appears at various moments in the season, mostly when Ruiz’s boyfriend and baby come to visit her. By the end of the season, all of Ruiz’s scenes linked together form a full arc, and even though we don’t know much about Ruiz other than that she’s one of the Latina prisoners, we get an entire story from her.

Orange is the New Black‘s second season manages to improve upon the first season. There are some groan inducing aspects the show won’t really be able to fix (Larry is still the worst), and the large cast means that some characters are a bit shafted in the way of story lines (Sophia is a bit underused, and Big Boo is probably the most prominent inmate to not get a flashback episode yet) but a lot of the characters are improved upon as well. The story continues to be well handled, and there’s great respect and concern for the subject discussed. On the whole,Orange is the New Black continues to be one of the best current TV series, and a real treat for anyone looking for good drama, good comedy, and real heart.

Of course, waiting a year for the third season is really going to hurt, but it’s at least going to be worth the pain.

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