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'Orange is the New Black' explores other characters

Second season morphs into true ensemble show

POSTED: June 26, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Netflix’s most successful original series returned a few weeks ago for Season 2 with its dazzling array of rich characters and sardonic, femme-skewing wit.

“Orange is the New Black” has surpassed critical darling “House of Cards” in total views, and it’s easy to understand why.

This show offers an unequalled array of women from diverse ethnic groups and social classes. Certain elements of the show are culturally radical, if not unprecedented, and it deserves recognition as one of the most socially progressive series in television history.

The sophomore season of “Orange” diminishes slightly in quality, but only in the way that anything does when it is no longer new.

Season 1 saw 30-something Piper (Taylor Schilling) leaving her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) and their yuppie lifestyle for a 15-month prison sentence after her former girlfriend (Laura Prepon) ratted on her for a decade-old crime.

Once behind bars, she met an unforgettable cast of fellow inmates, including imperious cook Red (Kate Mulgrew), recovering addict Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), delusional romantic Morello (Yael Stone) and the volatile yet endearing Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba).

The overriding theme of season 1 was Piper’s adjustment to prison life. Season 2 opens with her fully institutionalized.

Piper is temporarily transferred to a facility in Chicago, and throughout her processing she slings prison lingo like a native speaker and seems almost nostalgic when she gets fingerprinted.

Then a handful of episodes into the season, we see Piper viciously threaten a new inmate named Soso (Kimiko Glenn) merely for relying too much on her kindness. Previous “Orange” viewers know this is not the same Piper.

The only credible criticism of Season 2 I’ve encountered is Piper’s arc is rather flat. It is true, Piper does not endure as many story events this season, but she undergoes significant internal change as she faces the consequences of her actions.

But the series compensates by continuing to explore the other prisoners. The series’ gradual shift toward a true ensemble piece comes to full fruition.

The second season belongs to a new character, Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), and the African-American inmates she recruits into her de facto gang as much as it belongs to anyone else.

The show’s defining structural device is the expository flashback exploring an individual character’s past, often showing how she came to be in prison. Among this season’s highlights are backstories about Morello, Crazy Eyes, Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat).

The show will undoubtedly return focus to Piper in the future as it nears its end. But for now Piper is just one of the prisoners. There is even an episode in which Piper doesn’t appear at all.

The most popular test of whether a movie, television show or book is woman-friendly is the Bechdel test. The test says at least two women must talk to each other about something other than a man. Many also complain about the dearth of interesting roles for women. And most women’s entertainment is made for either one ethnicity or another.

“Orange is the New Black” demonstrates how laughably inadequate the Bechdel test is, not only because it is entirely about relationships among women, but because it explores so many types of relationships. In fact, the least interesting storyline is the relationship between Dayanara (Dascha Polanco) and male prison guard Bennett (Matt McGorry).

“Orange” also offers a wealth of fascinating female roles and is launching several careers. It’s probably the most ethnically diverse entertainment made for women in American history. In other words, it shatters the criteria by which television and movies starring women are most often judged.

Its use of nudity is ground-breaking, too. Aside from the sex scenes, which are obviously designed to titillate viewers of multiple persuasions, the show is non-selective in the body types it shows. Each episode revises beauty standards a little more.

It does all of this, though, without obviously taking on these elements as “issues.” They are merely facts in these women’s lives. Showrunner Jenji Kohan wisely and brilliantly maintains focus on telling the stories of these fascinating women.

“Orange is the New Black” continues to impress and entertain in equal measure. My only complaint is Season 3 is not yet available.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.


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