Riotous “Orange Is The New Black” avoids the sophomore slump

***Spoilers ahead***

Let’s face it: as the summer heats up, so does many an American’s propensity for Netflix binge-watching. Often, this marathon streaming is reduced to the umpteenth reality TV series about weddings, or the latest History Channel incarnation that has no connection to history or even reality (coming up next: Ice Road Amish Dog Show Hairdressers). However, there’s no doubt we are, in many ways, living in a golden age of television, at least when it comes to storytelling. While shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Louie have gained cult followings and established themselves as the sustenance of the increasingly outdated television medium in the internet age, the addition of Netflix to our entertainment options has immeasurably changed not only how we view television (for hours at a time, or simply at the hours of our choosing) but also provided a venue for television that takes more risks than we’ve seen since the height of The Sopranos on HBO.

Much has already been said about Netflix’s flagship series, House of Cards, but much more conversation has sprung from Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black (which was also based on a true story of a year spent in a women’s prison). After a stellar first season, the ladies of Litchfield return this summer to the computer screen (or any other Netflix-capable gadget)—and prove they’re here to stay.

Our heroine Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is really anything but: she’s whiny, a little bland, and just the kind of Yuppie you love to hate. But she isn’t all bad, and she’s learned the ropes to an extent. Season Two opens with Piper being released from solitary confinement after her beat-down of depraved evangelical redneck Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning, flawless) and shipped off to a prison in Chicago, where she awaits to testify in the trial of her ex-girlfriend and perpetual problem Alex’s (Laura Prepon) drug lord boss. Alex convinces Piper to lie, then tells the truth herself, sending Piper off to Litchfield again for just a little more time (while Alex walks free). If we were Piper, we’d rage, but as viewers, we’re happy, just so we can be reunited with the finest ladies around. Back to the slammer we go! And besides, Piper gets a couple days on the outside too; her grandmother dies, as she is told in a darkly humorous exchange with her “fat Bon Iver” brother Cal (Michael Chernus, who I hope to see more of next season).

The show continues its “flashback” pattern, and this time around, the spotlight falls to fan favorites Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba, arguably the show’s breakout character), and secrets are unveiled about former “background” characters Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat), Poussey (a sublime Samira Wiley), and Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler). An ominous figure from Taystee’s childhood emerges: Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), a former drug kingpin whose return to Litchfield brings up some “hard feelings” for Russian mastermind and resident badass Red (Kate Mulgrew). Vee’s arrival makes the ongoing racial tensions at Litchfield even worse as she manipulates many of the black women into joining her war against Red’s new buddies (the old white ladies, generally Appalachian in background) and the Latina kitchen crew. Poussey and Taystee’s friendship is tested, and it’s easy to see why Wiley has garnered so much attention this season: she’s fierce, emotional, and unrelentingly genuine. Meanwhile, the praise of Aduba is even more worthy: Crazy Eyes will make you laugh, think, and even break your heart.

Sister Ingalls and Rosa also prove forces to be reckoned with. Rosa, who most viewers only know as “the dying cancer patient,” was a buxom bank-robber in the 70s with an unfortunate “kiss of death” curse (just watch). Sister Ingalls was a popular nun and famous author who went to prison for throwing blood on a nuke site, and goes on a hunger strike to protest the poor treatment of elderly inmates. Both women will blow your mind; there’s more heart to crabby Rosa than you’d think, and more grit to gentle Sister than imaginable.

As for our non-inmate buddies, their lives are just as intriguing. Officer Bennett (Matt McGorry) has an ever-growing secret: that baby he’s going to have with inmate Daya (Dascha Polanco), and an ever-increasing anxiety about how to cover it up. Everyone’s favorite creepy guard, the aptly named Pornstache Mendez (Pablo Schreiber), makes a comeback, but not for long (in a scandal so momentous, I must only tempt the reader by gently grazing by). Piper’s dunce of a fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) struggles to work on his career and emotions, only to realize that Piper’s best friend Polly (Maria Dizzia) just might be the solution.

The finale is simply spectacular. Unlike last season, ends are tied up, not left dangling. It’s also worth noting that nearly every member of the cast shines in this season, unlike in the first round when we only got little tastes of what was to be. Morello (Yael Stone) is heart-breaking yet tender, Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) is even bigger and badder than last time, and so much has been said about Laverne Cox’s portrayal of resident hairdresser Sophia that it would seem a moot point to praise her even more (but the implication here is heavy). Even the crass Pennsatucky gains a special place in your heart; she seems redeemed, more accepting, and even helps the gruff Officer Healy (Michael Harney) work on his own issues.

With its many incredible talents, powerful (even ground-breaking) characters, and brilliant storytelling, any lesser show would be overwhelming. But Orange somehow manages to captivate us. The only downside? Our wait until next year for the third season.

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