When Orange is the New Black was unceremoniously dumped onto Netflix’s home page last summer, it was to very little fanfare. However, this was due to no fault of its own; it was just that we, the television consuming masses, had little notice ahead of time. Unlike Netflix’s heavily marketed – and star-studded – hit of the spring, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black had almost no hype when it launched. It didn’t have the “prestige” label that the media assigned to House of Cards, nor did it have the “genre” association that the supernatural Hemlock Grove had going for it. The original trailer gave you the impression that it was going to be a cross between lame, predicable sitcomery and inspirational fluff that manipulatively tugs on your heartstrings. It mostly took evocative lines of dialogue out of context and put them in a light that misrepresents what the show is actually like. The trailer also revealed that the creator of the show was Jenji Kohan, who was best known as the creator of Weeds, a show that was compelling and fun in its early years, but frustratingly went in circles, chasing its own tail in its later ones. In short, it didn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
But to the surprise of many, the show was widely acclaimed by critics. It wasn’t long after that when curious Netflix users started dipping in to test the waters. It was pretty tempting, after all. When all thirteen episodes are at the tip of your fingers, who cares who’s in it or what it’s about? There’s no harm in giving it a chance. And, really, that was all it took. Once the guinea pigs gave it a shot, they became hooked. Through word of mouth, a message was rapidly spread: This new Netflix show is much deeper, more enjoyable and more fulfilling than it originally appears. By the end of 2013, Netflix, a company known for its lack of transparency, had proudly announced that Orange is the New Black was its most watched original series ever. It was not a coincidence that it was also its best.
Orange is the New Black began as the story of one woman – a privileged and educated white woman – who, through a combination of bad decisions and bad luck, had wound up in a place that she seemingly didn’t belong: a women’s prison. The initial draw was that she’s a fish out of water, a stranger in strange land, (sometimes humorously) struggling to adapt to an unfortunate reality in a harsh new environment. But over time it was revealed that Orange is the New Black was actually the story of all of the women that were locked up with the ostensible protagonist, Piper Chapman. As it turned out, they were a wonderfully colorful – and diverse – cast of characters of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and sexual orientations. As the first season went on, their character traits and backstories were shaded in to give us a more accurate idea of just whom these people really are. If the delicately fashioned character moments didn’t pull you in, though, then the show’s addicting serial structure almost certainly did. Nearly every episode ended with a tantalizing cliffhanger blatantly designed to make you say, “just one more” in the wee hours of the morning. In addition, beyond all of the laughs, the drama, and the sex (did I mention that there was lots of sex?), there was also a sharp critique of the American prison and justice system. All of the elements combined to make for some seriously smart, gripping and satisfying entertainment.
With all of that being said, though, I couldn’t help but think that the show was just a tad overrated. It definitely deserved its share of praise, but when it started showing up at the top of many critics’ year-end lists – even above shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men – it seemed like overkill. As interesting and fun as it was, it also had a tendency to be pretty patchy and, at times, unnecessarily heavy-handed. These aren’t fatal flaws; it’s just that in whatever age of television this is, there are so many quality shows that these kinds of things stand out.
Fast-forward to less than a year later, to an even more impressive year in television. Coming into its second season, Orange is the New Black was easily one of the most anticipated shows of the year. Netflix knew that it had something special on its hands at this point, so it sold as such. For the past few weeks, viewers have been taking it all in at their own pace: some binge-watching the whole thing in a single weekend, others savoring it by taking their time. People have been watching in for different reasons, too. There are those who simply couldn’t get enough of the characters and the unique world that they inhabited, and there are those that were still anxiously waiting on the edge of their seat to see What Happens Next. However, the big-picture thinking pop culture obsessives among us tuned in to see how Orange stacked up to the excellent crop of shows that 2014 already had to offer.
In the first half of the year 2014, True Detective, with its bizarre taste for the dark and the strange, became a cultural phenomenon; Game of Thrones evolved into far and away the most obsessed-over show on television; Mad Men intoxicatingly laid the foundation for its conclusion; Fargo transcended anti-hero tropes with cinematic flair; The Americans, heart wrenching and complex as it was, reached another level; and Louie triumphantly returned in all of its experimental glory. Really though, that’s just scratching the surface. It says a lot that the second season of Orange shines to a degree that it unquestionably deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as these television heavyweights. But it does, because in its second season, Orange came into its own by ambitiously raising its stakes, sharpening its social commentary, continuing to craft a distinctive worldview and by spreading empathy to unexpected places.
It was also ambitious in a structural sense. In the finale of last season, Piper let her personal issues bubble over the surface as she exploded into a violent rage against her hillbilly tormentor. The last image before the screen turns to orange is Piper relentlessly beating Pennsatucky to a bloody pulp, with the clear implication that there will be serious repercussions for her actions. The premiere of season two daringly strips our central character from the setting of the entire first season. Piper is taken from solitary and is transported to a more dangerous prison in Chicago. The first half of the episode features an unbearable tension as Piper is blindly led to what she assumes are the consequences for her actions. However, once in Chicago, she learns that she’s there to testify against the drug boss whom she inadvertently worked for in another life, before the episode ends with another unexpected twist involving Piper’s former lover, Alex. What’s fascinating about the episode, though, is that Piper and Alex are the only main characters from the first season to appear in it. The show spent its first season developing a supporting cast that is just as interesting as its lead, and then surprisingly makes the viewer wait another hour before it gets to be immersed back into its familiar world.
In the second episode, the dynamic is flipped. Piper is still stuck in Chicago, so the show can focus on everyone else – but particularly, Taystee. In the first season, Taystee, as well as her sidekick Poussey, was primarily used for comic relief. By showing flashbacks of Taystee’s upbringing that enhance our understanding of her character, the show makes it clear that she’ll play a more prominent part in this phase of its story. We learn that Taystee was a precocious kid who lacked a real family until she was brought in by a drug-dealing mother figure named Vee. At the end of the episode, however, it’s revealed that Vee isn’t just meant to be a force that shaped who Taystee was on the outside: Vee becomes an inmate; she’ll have an impact on her life on the inside, too. The third episode, which highlights Suzanne’s (aka Crazy Eyes’) tumultuous childhood, cleverly finds a way to a) show how Suzanne’s past has played a hand in her recent actions, b) explain why Piper wasn’t punished more for such a condemned transgression and c) lay the foundation for the rest of the season.
Once everything is set in motion, the season shifts into another gear. Vee gradually steps into the role of the antagonist, injecting anarchy into what was a relatively orderly and happy environment in the first season. In the first season, despite their myriad differences, the women of Litchfield were all in the same boat, and were more or less united by that common bond. There were petty feuds among them – Red vs. Gloria and Pennsatucky vs. Piper come to mind – but when they were together, they actually resembled a family. Vee’s arrival quickly destroyed that dynamic. Vee coerces Taystee back into her good graces, and convinces her former protégé to help her run a drug operation. It isn’t long before she persuades others, such as Black Cindy and Watson, to join her ranks, too. She manipulatively comforts Suzanne until she morphs into her attack dog. She wages gang warfare against Gloria and her Latina cohorts, as well as Red, with whom she has a history that goes way back. Poussey, Taystee’s inseparable companion of season one, also finds herself a target once Vee realizes that Poussey has feelings for Taystee. Soon, all of the women that co-existed relatively peacefully, despite their differing races, sexual orientations and values, become contentiously divided by them. It’s often uncomfortable to watch, but as the screws tighten, it’s increasingly captivating.
Though the plight of Poussey, Taystee and Red is generally the most compelling and tension-filled storyline of the season, there are plenty of others that are worthy of consideration. A theme that runs through several of them is the effects, as well as the ineffectiveness and the unfairness, of the prison and justice system. While Piper becomes entangled in an investigation of the use of the prison’s funds and resources, Sister Ingalls, Yoga Jones and chatty new addition, Brooke Soso, lead a hunger strike to protest the prison’s subpar conditions and inhumane practices. The second season continues the first’s flashback format of showing not just how these women ran afoul of The System but also how The System in turn failed them. It also ever, ever so steadily, begins to expand its scope. By further integrating assistant warden Natalie Figueroa into the story, Orange sheds a little light on how a prison system can become so corrupt, ineffectual and, ultimately, stray so far away from its basic responsibilities. Figueroa, we learn, is married to a politician who is embezzling from the prison in order to fund his campaign for Senate.
It’s the little pieces like this that show how large and complex Jenji Kohan aspires her world to be. These are the things that make the viewer take a step back and realize that everything is connected, but not at all in a mystical, Lost sense. The show that Orange surprisingly tends to evoke is The Wire, a groundbreaking show that was, first and foremost, a multi-faceted takedown of institutions. However, it also shares a distinct similarity with another “Golden Age” series. Breaking Bad was obsessed with consequences, the idea that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Everything Walter White and Jesse Pinkman did over the course of five thrilling seasons had serious repercussions. Orange plays with this karmic idea, too, but it also subverts the equation. What if instead of committing crimes, Walt and Jesse committed acts of kindness?
Despite all of the turmoil, in its second season Orange remained one of the warmest shows on television and, by far, its most empathetic. The show isn’t just concerned with making nearly every character relatable, it’s hell-bent on it. Just two seasons in and the show has already devoted extensive flashbacks to 20 different characters – and that’s not hyperbole. Countless others have had their backgrounds established or their characters fleshed out to give the audience an opportunity to see their side of things, if they so choose. Even ostensible antagonists have been, if not redeemed, then humanized. Sam Healy, the disdainful correctional officer of season one, might have turned his back on an inmate in danger, but he has some psychological issues; he really just wants to help people and feel like he matters again. Figueroa’s selfishness is depriving the prisoners of their basic needs and rights, but she’s also trapped in a loveless marriage. Even a creep like Pornstache has a twisted sense of honor and duty. Yes, some of these people have done worse things than others, but in Orange’s view (similar to that of The Wire), they’re neither bad nor good; they’re just who they are.
There’s a defining moment between Healy and Pennsatucky in the season finale. Healy is once again beat down after no one shows up to his therapy seminar; he’s basically down in the dumps, believing that all of his efforts to help people have been wasted. But to his surprise, Pennsatucky thanks him and tells him he’s the only person who has ever tried to help her with anything. It’s such a small thing, yet it’s what prompts him to use the power that he yields for something good – and it has a dramatic impact on nearly everyone else in the story. This is the epitome of the show’s empathetic heart. There’s another telling moment that occurs about midway through the season that involves beleaguered administrator Joe Caputo. Caputo is fed up with getting chewed out by his boss, with the state of the prison and with the state of his life in general. He pledges to take a stand and get Litchfield in shape for once. To him – and to The System – the best way to do this is to enforce harsher penalties. His intentions aren’t bad, but his actions eventually prove to be harmful. It’s another example of destruction that The System can wrought, but it’s also an example of how the little things matter.
In Orange is the New Black, there are two diverging ideas that somehow fit into the same complex worldview. There’s the cynicism that The System will screw over everyone and everything eventually, and then there’s this prevailing sense that little things can make a big difference, that a little kindness can go a long way. It’s a tight rope on which the show precariously balances. But when Orange is the New Black pulls it off, as it consistently does in its ambitious second season, it’s at its absolute best.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.