[Review] - Orange Is The New Black, Season 2

Courtesy of Lionsgate Television
I binged True Detective in a day, House of Cards season 2 over a weekend, season one of Orphan Black over a couple evenings just before season two started. And season one of Orange is the New Black in a day and a half over this last May long weekend. So, before I did anything else with season two, I promised myself I would take my time. I'd watch it at an easy pace. And wonder of wonders, I did. It has been 14 days since it premiered on Netflix, and I just finished last night. One episode a day. And you know what, it didn't kill me to wait the 24 hours between each episode. In fact, I enjoyed it more.

There is research to suggest that we enjoy our TV less when we binge. I wouldn't got that far. Binge watching TV is really no different then getting really into a book and reading it straight through while on a plane, or at a cousin's funeral. And with shows like True Detective, once I had all the episodes at my disposal, I wanted to know what happened next because what was going to happen next seemed so immediate. Orange is never that... pushy. Each episode leaves you feeling satisfied enough that you feel the need to instantly jump into the next one. You can digest, and enjoy the next one all the more.

And you do. In it's sophomore offering, Orange is just as enjoyable as the first. From a storytelling perspective, the show has matured, found a studier, more pleasing voice. Because of the sheer number of storylines going on, some feel over extended, and too often the show props up it's characters with cliche. But the characters save it every time, by being unique and engaging and just so damned much fun to spend time with. Except Larry.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that aren't drunk, their Australian.

The two big stories about this season before the premiere was that Laura Prepon wasn't going to be a regular, thus removing Alex from the ongoing storyline. The other was that the other inmates were going o have expanded roles this season. Both of these things were true, and both were executed masterfully. I'll focus on the latter event first. The show had begun to show signs of transforming into an ensemble show in season one, and fully embraced that identity here. It is no longer Piper's story, that was just the way to get the audience into the prison, so we could focus on everyone else.

Piper (Taylor Schilling) remained a constant throughout the series, but had no more a central role than Red (Kate Mulgrew), or Caputo (Nick Sandow), or season newcomer Vee (Lorraine Toussaint). Which is fine, because Piper's story really hasn't moved on much from last year. Her and Larry still have problems, complicated because they broke up as last season closed, and she's still pissed/in love with Alex. By the season's end, things are still complicated with Larry, and her relationship with Alex is on no more stable ground then it ever has been.

The season was at it's best when it was focusing on everyone else, or when it was using Piper to further someone else's story. It isn't exactly like LOST in terms of it's character focus, but it's pretty damned close. Flashbacks reveal less of how these characters ended up in prison, and more how their lives ended up in such a condition as to eventually lead them to prison. And the present day stuff regularly shuffled between three story lines per episode. One usually involved Red or Vee, and their ongoing turf war. The other two would follow another cliche within the prison (the Latinos and the pregnancy plot, new inmate Brook and her hunger strike, Healey and his generally woes). There were plenty of plots to go around this season, and it managed to never feel heavy or distracting. The writers never left any one story long enough for the audience to forget about it, and in each there was something to keep you interested.

It's not to say that every plot is a winner. The pregnancy storyline shows signs of burning itself out, having a reached a point where the writers don't know what to do with it anymore, so they let it spin it's wheels for a while, then wrap it up with a convenient and totally unbelievable conclusion. The character of Brook, possibly a satirical response from the writers about how annoying Piper was in the first season, was grating and horrible in a intentional way, and eventually lead to a better plot for Sister Ingalls late in the run.

There does appear to be a frustrating insistence on the status quo developing, something that was missing from season one to the show's benefit. Knowing that anything can happen keeps the show interesting and the characters worth devoting affection to. The way Alex was written out was clever, made sense in context, and upended expectations. The way they crowbarred her back in during the final episodes was not. If the show is just going to keep resetting everyone, then the journey strains purpose. Piper especially needs to shit or get off the pot of her life. Last season ended with the apparent birth of the new, hardened Piper that she had been worrying over all season. This year, she goes right back to square one. For all her talk of prison having changed her, there is little evidence to support that.

Though, award for worst storyline of the season goes to Larry. His continued presence smells of the writers needing to find something for him to do, in order to fulfil a contract. For the good of the show, Jason Biggs should have been let go, but instead we end up with an out-of-prison exploration of just how shallow and desperate he is by pairing him off with Polly, a character who really only needs to be there to augment Piper. To attempt to flesh them out is admirable, but when it is this half-hearted, all you end up producing is stupidity. Happily, because it is Piper focused, it is minor, but not absent. Just present enough to annoy, and boy does it succeed in that.

It's the characters in the prison that are the interesting ones, and that includes the employees. If this season has one larger success than any other, it is the way they handled the guards. Last season, we got hints, but outside of Pornstache and Healy, we didn't really get to know any of the guards. This season spent as much time with administration and the COs as it did the cons. And bravo for making them sympathetic characters, even Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), whom I was love to see return next season as an inmate. They even managed to redeem Healy and Pennsatucky, who were utterly unlikable last year, but who were both given the attention and the motivation to brings themselves back, both in the show and the eyes of the viewer.

The show relies way too much on cliches and stereotypes to fill in backstory and provide motivation for it to be truly original and impressive, but the characters are all well developed, and the actors don't disappoint. And even with the well worn tropes being trotted out for show, it is still fulfilling to discover more about the inmates before they were inmates, and the guards when they are out of uniform. My favourite exploration of the season was the reveal of Morello (Yael Stone), closely followed by Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat). In terms of development, the characters that received the most attention and came out the most emotionally compromised were easily Poussey (Samira Wiley)and Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), both of whom suffered under the leadership of the villainous Vee.

The notion of a Big Bad for the season was a bit of a lazy choice, considering that last season had the concept of prison being the antagonist. But without the focus being on Piper, and many of the inmates acclimated to the environment, an outside influence had to exert some control, I suppose. It created an interesting dynamic to follow, and managed to cross over into pretty much every other storyline, so it was a well executed plot as well. In fact, the entire season had a tightness to the core story that I enjoyed; it's a talent that occasionally is lacking in the arc focused modern television landscape. The stories that didn't work as well tended to be the ones that weren't about the power structure in the prison. The embezzlement plot could have used a little more meat to it, rather than hint at it occasionally then to drop it like a bomb at the end.

I wouldn't say that I'm clamouring for more. Even with last season's cliffhanger, I wasn't immediately begging for a resolution. Orange is a show I'm happy to watch when there are new episodes on offer, and I enjoy it very much. But it isn't a show I'm begging for more of. It's one I'm content to take my time with, and once it's digested, I'm on to the next course.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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