Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Orange is the New Black, Season 2 (2014)

*SPOILERS: this review has spoilers for both available seasons of the show.*

Netflix's "all episodes at once" release model wields a mighty influence over how its shows are structured. House of Cards, for example, takes advantage of every episode being available at once (and Netflix's instant-play function that starts the next episode almost immediately when one ends) to maximize the show's high-stakes power plays. It also makes the season feel like a cohesive whole; with episodes watched independently of one another, the show's (many) narrative flaws and weak characterizations become glaringly obvious. However, when viewed all at once, these problems are blanketed over through sheer momentum. It's not a surprising development. If anything, this release strategy is the logical next-stage evolution of serialized television storytelling: the season as a whole is the work, with the episodes making up the pieces of it rather than the episodes themselves being stand-alone works.

Unlike season one, the second season of Orange is the New Black - which premiered on Netflix June 6 - was written with knowledge of how the show would be released. The result is an astounding 13 episodes of television that takes full advantage of all of its assets: compelling storytelling, a phenomenal, diverse cast, complex themes of empathy and community, and a release strategy that allows the creative team to take huge risks with remarkable payoffs.

More after the jump.

As I noted in my "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" post, the season's first two episodes - "Thirsty Bird" and "Looks Blue, Tastes Red" - lay the groundwork for how the show could continue for seasons to come. Yet these two episodes are also indicative of just how bold season two is. The former episode focuses solely on Piper (Taylor Schilling), the show's ostensible protagonist, and only spends a few minutes within Litchfield, the women's prison that serves as the show's setting. The latter, meanwhile, is completely Piper-less, filling the audience in on what's been happening at Litchfield, with the flashbacks fleshing out Taystee's (Danielle Brooks) backstory. "Looks Blue, Tastes Red" also introduces the season's "villain:" Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), a devious former prisoner who, in her new sentence, looks to upend in the balance of power among the prisoners in her favor. It's impossible to imagine a broadcast network - or even a cable network like HBO - using this kind of structure for the season's first two episodes, not even uniting the cast until the third hour.

This is important to the show's future because of how they decentralize the audience's perspective. Describing Piper as the show's "ostensible protagonist" is significant because season two devotes the majority of it's time pushing Piper to the background and handing the reins to different characters in each episode. Perhaps more than any other show since Lost, Orange is the New Black has truly embraced its ensemble of characters and attempts to give them all substance and respect (and it does this without the genre framework of the former show). While season one certainly expanded its scope over the course of thirteen episodes, season two takes it even further, giving the audience more insights into the guards and prison employees as well as the prisoners. The show truly believes in the idea that every single person is the protagonist in their own story, and treats each episode as if we're dropping in on that particular character's story. Everyone gets a chance to play the lead, and no character is too minor or insignificant to be granted empathy and humanity.

As a result, the show is able to tackle a number of complicated, sticky themes with relative ease. The most biting, of course, is the critique of the American prison system, which is especially prominent this season as Piper decides to start a prison newsletter as a front to bring the prison's bureaucratic failings to light. But there's much more that it's tackling: on top of the examinations of how we create identities - race, sexuality, gender, class, age, religion - the show piles on this year a glimpse into care for the elderly with Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat), who's battling cancer in a prison that'll pay for chemotherapy but nothing more. Lorna Morello (Yael Stone), Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren (Uzo Aduba), and Jimmy Cavanaugh (Patricia Squire) collectively provide a conversation about mental illness, particularly the way its treated both medically and socially. That the show is able to balance all of these themes and maintain its sardonic tone is a testament to the show's investment in its characters: a broader scope makes it easier to juggle more ideas.

Most importantly, the show's impressive cast gets an opportunity to shine. Orange is the New Black hands-down has the most astounding cast on television, and to choose a single performance as "best" is impossible. Schilling does some of her best work when she's not saddled with carrying the narrative, and any time she's paired with Taryn Manning's Pennsatucky - Piper's former enemy - is inspired. Toussaint makes for a terrific force of malevolence, and Vee's battle of wits with Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) for dominance is a chance for all three actresses to shine. Aduba was a breakout last year, and both she and Brooks get the opportunity this season to add depth to characters that were treated more as comic relief in season one. Even though she's mostly limited to a few scenes over the course of the season, Laverne Cox continues to shine as Sophia Burset, and she completely sells the moments that she's given. But if this season has a true breakout, it's Samira Wiley. As Poussey Washington, Wiley gets an opportunity to add depth to her character both in her friendship with Taystee and in her struggles to define "home." Wiley absolutely nails every note of the performance, and her featured episode, "You Also Have a Pizza," is easily the season's best.

This isn't to say that this season is perfect. For one, Larry (Jason Biggs), Piper's ex-fiance on the outside, is still lingering, and now engaged in a sexual relationship with Piper's best friend Polly (Maria Dizzia). Biggs himself isn't the problem, but Larry's subplot is essentially a vestigial tail of what the show was early in the first season, and doesn't really connect to the far more interesting prison plots in a meaningful way. The resolution of the Larry-Polly plot seems to indicate that maybe the show has lost interest in it too, so it may be put to rest. Yet romantic relationships are really the show's strongest suit. Piper is a far more interesting (and funny) character without her ex-girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon), around, and the icky, rape-y relationship between Daya (Dascha Polanco) and guard Bennett (Matt McGorry) is troubling, especially given that Daya is pregnant with his child. The relationships that Orange is the New Black does best are the friendships, unrequited loves, makeshift families, and sexual competitions that fit the show's tone.

(It's also worth noting that the one character in the prison that doesn't get much empathy is warden Natalie "Fig" Figuora (Alysia Reiner), the sole woman in a high position of power. There's an attempt at humanity with her dealing with her secretly-gay husband as he runs for office, but that's mostly tossed aside for the rather demoralizing way she leaves the prison.)

Those issues aside, there's no show out there right now that's quite like Orange is the New Black. The show's second season is a great leap forward from the already-stellar first season, expanding the scope without sacrificing the warmth it feels for its characters. The show may try and succeed at being a lot of different things, but the most important and impressive feat is how it tells stories of the oppressed that no other show has ever done (or is currently doing). This season's greatest feat is entering a world that's designed to dehumanize its inhabitants and gives each and every one of them humanity. A

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