Last year, the hype around Netflix’s first original series House of Cards and the return of Arrested Development overshadowed the news that Jenji Kohan (creator of the wildly uneven Weeds, which really fell apart in final seasons) was turning Piper Kerman’s novel about spending a year in women’s federal prison into a television show called Orange is the New Black. Yet when the dust settled, it was Orange is the New Black that drew more viewers (in initial months, at least) than either of its counterparts, a show that tackled both individual experiences in prison and a broad critique of the American justice system with sharp wit and a caring eye.
But that’s not all that made OitNB resonate so much with viewers: it was the show’s ability to express optimism in the darkest recesses of humanity – which is much harder to do than the approach most top-flight dramas attempt, where the dark get darker and the hopeful turn hopeless. As an audience, we could see that things weren’t going to get better for these characters (though “better” is a very, very relative term in prison, one of the show’s most important lessons) – but the characters never did, even with the same knowledge we had that things probably weren’t going to work out for the best. They never stopped trying - trying to make human connections, trying to improve themselves, trying to conquer their demons (which, by the way… RIP Tricia), in turn creating a bond between character and audience that many television shows can only fantasize about.
The two episodes that open season two, “Thirsty Bird” and “Looks Blue, Taste Red” are very different creatures, at least structurally: the former focuses solely on Piper’s sudden transfer from Litchfield Seg to a Chicago prison), and the latter spends some quality time with Taystee, Red, and the rest of the Litchfield crew a month after the events of the Christmas pageant that closed season one. Thematically, they’re fairly similar, retracing the paths Piper and Taystee took on the way to prison, exploring how their values were formed, and how that informs the people they’ve become today. Of the two, Taystee’s is stronger, if only because the flashback sequences can showcase Danielle Brooks and new cast member Lorraine Toussaint (as former drug runner Vee), rather than rely on child actors to get their point across.
It’s also helped by the subtleties in Taystee’s story, how the flashbacks help re-form her character’s decision last season to violate her parole and return to prison. For the most part, Piper’s journey in “Thirsty Bird” is straightforward: Piper’s loose grip on her own morality creates the internal confusion that’s driven her character since the first scene, more of a padding to her back story than the episode-long addendum to Taystee’s, an extra chapter that reveals she isn’t just a one-trick pony who is good at reciting facts from the library law books.
Of course, being the first two episodes of the season, there’s a lot to introduce, re-introduce, and develop: “Tall Men With Feelings” and “Can’t Fix Crazy” proved last season that OitNB always has long-term ambitions, and those aren’t quite clear yet. The Latinas are in the positions of power within the prison, and the “peace” Leanne mentions is about to end when Pennsatucky returns with her brand-new grille (courtesy of Healy, who is still trying to make it work with his Ukranian bride, her green card registration date looming ever-closer by the day). Piper’s in a deep pile now (thanks to Alex’s sudden change of heart and departure from Chicago), and a big sub-plot of the second episode revolves around Daya’s constipation: these two episodes are full of little “checking in” scenes (like Boo’s hilarious explanation of where her dog went; “It got weird”), which will surely give way to more meaty story lines as the season continues.
Or not – the beauty of Orange is the New Black is how it layers socio-political critique with traditional genre drama, but with a plethora of unique, lovably flawed characters (except Pornstache, who is nowhere to be seen in the opening two hours; heck, even Bennett’s only around for one scene), a wider palette of personalities and life stories than arguably any other show on television. And although things are getting a bit darker and more complicated for people like Piper and Taystee, that underlying sense of optimism remains in the opening episodes of season two, a promising start to my most-anticipated return of 2014 (well, right next to Rectify, of course).
– welcome to Orange is the New Black reviews! I’ll be writing about all thirteen episodes this season, one or two at a time throughout the next month.
– Larry’s father takes him to a gay sauna because he had a Groupon deal: “A schvitz is a schvitz!” he tells Larry.
– only a brief appearance from Crazy Eyes, but a classic one: “Round things… are pleeeasing to me.”
– Red losing her position in the kitchen has effects in the real world; her son and husband are being intimidated by Red’s mob-connected boss, her product no longer moving through the kitchens as previously arranged.
– two surprises end both episodes: in the first, Piper learns of Alex’s change of heart and finds the Slow Biggie she’s been looking for, and in “Looks Blue, Tastes Red”, a triumphant Taystee leaves the chapel and walks into Vee, the woman who saved her from group homes (and then got her sent to prison, sometime after her “brother” was killed by the police).
– can’t be calling those poochies bitches anymore!
– “It’s like a maxi maxi!”
[Photo via Netflix]