Posted on Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 by David Chen
This post contains some very minor spoilers for Season 2 of Orange is the New Black
I just finished the second season of Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black on Netflix and I was blown away by it. What an extraordinary piece of work Kohan has created: a show that is brimming with rich, complex characters, and that looks and sounds like nothing else on TV (or Netflix) right now.
Here are a few reasons why this show is so incredibly impressive.
It dramatically and effectively expands the world created in the first season – Not only are some great new characters introduced, but existing characters become more fully fleshed out, and the show balances them all almost flawlessly. We learn things about characters like Morello and Caputo that make them more relatable, and which gives new light to their actions from the first season.
What was most remarkable to me is that this season relegates the character of Piper Chapman to almost a side character. Chapman was originally supposed to be the audience surrogate, a white, blond woman whose upper-middle class background could give the average viewer a perspective to cling to. This season, it seems as though Kohan and the other showrunners felt like such a surrogate was unnecessary – that they’d already done a good enough job making us invested in these characters and didn’t need Chapman to walk us through it.
As a result, numerous episodes take place with an astonishing lack of Chapman. (I can remember at least one episode that didn’t feature her at all.) Just as The West Wing was originally conceived with Rob Lowe as the star, and was able to survive after his departure, I think Orange is the New Black has reached a point where it could survive without Chapman. And it’s a stronger show because of it.
It refuses easy answers – OITNB never depicts a battle between good and evil; only conflicts between complex human beings, or between people and the institutions they are trapped in. Even characters that one thinks of as despicable are often later given flashbacks or backstory that makes their behavior more understandable.
For me, the show’s biggest accomplishment in this regard is the character of Caputo, who started season 1 as a side character bureaucrat, but ends season 2 as one of the characters I was most invested in. As the season draws to a close, Caputo’s nobility comes into full focus. Yet the show still gives him ample opportunities to be a sleazeball, lest we forget that this show takes place in the “real” world, where no one is perfect.
It again proves what we’ve always suspected about minority voices in Hollywood – In the past 5 years, only 4.7% of feature films released by a major studio were directed by women. (source) What OITNB proves is that interesting stories among minority groups do exist, if only someone would tell them.
The characters in OITNB, mostly women, come in all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. We rarely see this variety of women on TV shows or films, let alone women who are allowed to exist with their own motivations and backstories that don’t involve a male. Yet the show still manages to be heartwarming and moving and brilliant all the same.
The fact that stories from minority groups aren’t being told more often is a shortcoming that Hollywood is only beginning to atone for. But OITNB shows that every day that we aren’t seeing more of these types of stories being told is a day that our popular culture is poorer.
A few other random observations:
- By far, the biggest breakout star of the season is Lorraine Toussaint, who plays the terrifying matriarch, Vee. If anyone can be said to be the villain of the show, it’s her, and she plays the role with a magnetic confidence and unflappability. I thought she was magnificent as a character I loved to hate. Vee is a masterclass in how to introduce and build up a villain unto her own.
- Biggest disappointment this season: Brook Soso, played by Kimiko Glenn. Glenn did a fine job with the material she was given, but Soso never became more than a bundle of caricatures. This was a shame, given that Piper had a similar arc, and it might’ve been interesting to see how they played off each other.
- Second biggest disappointment: a curious lack of Laverne Cox, who plays Sophia. Cox has become a national fixture these days, appearing on numerous morning talk shows and the cover of Time magazine. It stood to reason that she’d be a major player in the second season of the show, but nothing of the sort happened. Instead, she was relegated to background status for the vast majority of the season, occasionally chiming in with a joke or hairstyle recommendation. A disappointing follow-up for a character I was a huge fan of in the first season.
- Over 13 hours later and I’m still not sure how I feel about how the show completely reset the events of the first season finale. The way it did a quasi-retcon was clever (particularly with the involvement of the Warren character), and we’ve seen numerous TV show seasons end on huge cliffhangers, only to completely roll them back in the next season premiere. But I just felt like the last episodes of the first season built to this huge deserved climax, and to see that not have more of an impact on the Chapman/Pennsatucky characters was kind of a bummer.
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