Piper Chapman, the fictional inmate at the center of Jenji Kohan’s magnificently layered and wickedly seamy Netflix dramedy “Orange Is the New Black,” has been sent to one of the Litchfield women’s penitentiary’s solitary confinement cells, a.k.a. “the SHU” (Special Housing Unit), after giving another inmate a good pummeling at the end of the series’ first season.
There she’s been losing her grip and using her breakfast goop to brush nature paintings on the walls. The solitude is a good opportunity to think about what got her (and us) to this point. Since entering prison as a fragile and fallen Mary Sunshine from gentrified Brooklyn who was busted on a decade-old trafficking charge, Chapman (inmates never go by their first names) has been slowly discovering her inner thug.
The show’s second season, which begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, strongly suggests that the woman formerly known as Piper is perhaps exactly where she belongs. This is home now.
In terms of character and ambitious writing and acting, “Orange Is the New Black” is certainly one of the best shows going, however you choose to watch it — whether by parceling out an episode every few nights and making it last into the summer (that’s what I’d recommend) or gorging on all 13 new episodes over a weekend (in which case, knock yourself out).
The show is often nasty and sometimes distastefully cruel to its characters, but it also easily forges a deep and authentic emotional connection to the viewer. There are frequent reminders that it’s as much of a dark comedy as it is a social study. In one of the new episodes, there is protracted debate about the location of the urethra in relation to the vagina — a matter definitively settled by Burset, a transgender inmate (played by Laverne Cox) — and a competition between two lesbian inmates, Big Boo and Nichols (Lea DeLaria and Natasha Lyonne) to see who can seduce the largest number of inmates, with a special emphasis on orgasm. I sometimes like to imagine the male-centric world of TV showrunners, producers, writers and even critics getting light-headed and passing out while they watch the show.
On a not-so-subliminal level, “Orange” is asking us to consider all the deplorable, despicable male TV characters we’ve embraced over the years and, in turn, demonstrate a similarly complex empathy for the women doing time at Litchfield. The show continues to clearly demonstrate that writing strong roles for women — and lots of them — is not the artistically elusive problem it’s been made out to be; a network simply has to want to do it.
It’s also easy to praise the show for the way it acquaints us with the rituals and degradations of the modern American penal system. I’ll leave it to prison reform advocates and former inmates to judge the relative precision of “Orange Is the New Black’s” details, but, as a television series based on a best-selling memoir, it certainly passes my sniff test: Do you watch it and feel like you’ve gone to prison? Yes. And is it interesting? Always.
Fans of Kohan's underappreciated Showtime series “Weeds,” a cross-country saga about a widowed mom who became a drug dealer, already know that the creator is determined to push her characters as far as they can go, even if they are literally confined.
Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling, whose performance has evolved along with her character into something appreciably tougher than the noob she began as) is handcuffed and taken away from Litchfield, put on a bus and then a plane full of inmates from other facilities, in a manner that bears a striking resemblance to the ways that “Weeds” would veer in an all-new direction with each season. I won’t spoil it by saying where she’s sent (or why), except to say that the new place makes Litchfield look like summer camp.
With Chapman out, it’s even more apparent how attached we’ve grown to “Orange’s” general population. Dethroned from her contraband empire as the head cook in the cafeteria, the resourceful Russian (Kate Mulgrew as Red) begins meticulously scheming anew, while the Latina inmates, led by Mendoza (Selenis Leyva), assert their power as the new kitchen crew. Race is a more central theme in this season’s first six episodes, as one of Litchfield’s ex-cons, Vee (Lorraine Toussaint, a new cast member) begins insidiously sowing unrest among the black inmates.
The real treasure in “Orange Is the New Black” are the flashback scenes in which we learn the personal stories of individual characters — the details they keep most private, about who they were before prison and what crimes brought them here. Among others this go-around, we learn more about two favorite characters — Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba) and Lorna Morello (Yael Stone). That past-present narrative structure has been done before (and sometimes done to death), but in “Orange Is the New Black” it never fails to offer a wealth of information that humanizes the whole endeavor.
Long after running through all the episodes, you find yourself still thinking about these women. “It’s so interesting, all these lives,” says a corrections officer (Lauren Lapkus) who has taken to eavesdropping on their phone calls, which are recorded. “It’s like reading Dickens.”
This could possibly be a classically subtle Kohan jab at all those critics who compared HBO’s “The Wire” to sprawling 19th-century literature. But in “Orange Is the New Black’s” case, it also rings quite true.
(Season 2; 13 episodes) begins streaming Friday on Netflix.