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'Orange Is The New Black' Review: Season 2 Returns In Fine, Frisky Form

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ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK
Kate Mulgrew and Lorraine Toussaint in 'Orange Is the New Black' | Netflix

I won't fool myself into thinking that any review, including mine, will lead anyone to watch the second season of "Orange Is the New Black." Let's face it, if you're a fully (or mostly) grown human with a Netflix connection and a pulse, you're going to watch it, regardless of what anyone says.

And why not? Season 1 certainly merited the hype it received and left me missing its unforgettable array of characters with unusual ferocity. And so tomorrow, when the seven episodes beyond the six I've already seen hit Netflix, I will gobble them up like a kid left alone with the Halloween candy.

All I can hope to do is tell you if the experience of watching the show (or at least the first half of the season) is different this year. It is; the show is still addictive, if more diffuse and sprawling in its second go-round. The show always had a shaggy, almost ungainly quality, but now there are even more relationships and feuds and characters floating around. It's a feast, but perhaps one that is best enjoyed in reasonable intervals that allow you to savor the juicy, funny, resonant stuff.

Oh, who am I kidding? We're all going to binge the minute we get the chance, I just know it.

So that will be the same as before. Also more or less unchanged are "OITNB's" central themes about connection and conflict, and how those two things drive each other, despite the characters' good intentions (and their bad ones too). Satisfying shows intelligently use metaphors or formulas to condense everyday existence into something richer and more exciting than our nonfictional lives, and stories involving crime, law and medicine are TV staples for a reason -- they're chock full of potential danger and suspense-laden twists and turns.

When it comes to "OITNB," the story engine isn't the courtroom, a detective's hunches or a series of crises in the emergency room. The handy thing about any show set in jail is that the dramatic engine is actually surrounding every person all the time: It's a place. It's the walls. The prison serves as both a maze and a pressure cooker for inmates and guards alike, and creator Jenji Kohan is pretty damn good at knowing when to turn up the heat.

Wherever you go, there you are, as they say, and in prison, it's brought home again and again that there's nowhere to hide and few methods of distracting yourself from your demons or the demands of other people. Every prison drama spends time on the various posses that attempt to rule the chow hall and the yard (which is why "Oz" and "OITNB" have a lot in common with CW shows and/or most high-school dramas). What elevates "OITNB" is that the show uses those factional storylines to increase the pressure on characters in ways that engage our sympathies. Being a good person and being someone who survives prison are two different things, and these women are constantly discovering unexpected aspects of themselves, which is both good and bad. Ex-Brooklyn hipster Piper Chapman saying "Bitches gots to learn" last year was kind of funny, but it's also the show's secret agenda. This year, Piper is a different animal, and I use that word advisedly. She ain't making artisanal soap anymore, that's for sure.

Intense connections, intense experiences, intense pressures: These things change people, and though "OITNB" is wry and light on its feet often enough, the drab Litchfield prison contains a potent atmosphere. These women are apart from their families and friends, and on top of those gaping losses and the shame attached to jail terms, they've got to contend with the fluctuations of whatever group they've attached themselves to. Some of them, conversely, have to deal with being excluded, which is not just emotionally rough but potentially physically dangerous. On "OITNB," sources of tension -- and possible catharsis -- are always bubbling through to surface. It's like "The Walking Dead," but on "OITNB," the characters battle boredom, fear and Machiavellian plotting instead of zombies, bad characterization and a lack of canned goods.

The "OITNB" season premiere is a clever re-introduction of the tale of inmate Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling); it pulses with tension while methodically refreshing viewers on where things stood with her at the end of last season. Subsequent episodes are much less Piper-centric (and one doesn't feature her at all), which is as it should be. Schilling has more than proved her mettle in her role, but I wouldn't call her the "lead" of the show. In its second season, more than ever, "OITNB" is a true ensemble piece, with the Litchfield facility and the collisions of the various agendas among prisoners, guards and administrators serving as the only real constants.

Weirdly enough, the show's similarity to "Lost" came to mind as I watched the first half-dozen installments of Season 2. As was the case in Season 1, in almost every episode, we see flashbacks from an inmate's past, and as was the case with "Lost," sometimes those glimpses of life back in the day are compelling and infuse present-day events with pathos and depth. At other times, the flashbacks are obvious and not especially effective at making the viewer feel more invested in the fate of the character in question (also, anything involving Piper's husband Larry feels fairly rote and bland this season). As with everybody's favorite island drama, a few flashback scenes were a struggle to get through, though others (especially the one focused on Uzo Aduba's Suzanne) gave the show's excellent array of actors much-deserved chances to shine.

The good thing about "OITNB" is that there are so many good characters and promising dynamics that you usually don't have to wait long for something frisky or funny to turn up. I truly hope we get a lot more from Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman) and Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), in the second half of the season; they're around in the first six episodes, but not enough for my liking. The romance between Daya (Dascha Polanco) and Bennett (Matt McGorry) remains charming and sincere; Michael J. Harney continues to make the gruff Healy appealing, despite the guard's oafish tendencies, and Lyonne's versatility and comic timing make every one of her scenes a small gem. "OITNB" has the kind of high-class problem that has afflicted everything from "Deadwood" to "Friday Night Lights": In a show with so many terrific major characters and minor players ripe with potential, one's tolerance for boredom and repetition is especially low.

Lorraine Toussaint, who joins the cast in the second season as someone well known to Taystee (Danielle Brooks), is a quietly effective new character, one bent on filling some of the power vacuums that have materialized at the prison. If there's one thing "OITNB" is good at, it's destabilizing the power structures at the core of the show: Red (Kate Mulgrew), Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), Tossaint's character and even Piper have to negotiate very different hierarchies than were in place at the start of the first season. (Sidebar: Obviously it's a well-made and well-acted drama, but I wonder if one of the reasons "OITNB" gained such prominence on a TV scene dominated by male characters and dude ensembles is because, like many prestige programs of the last 15 years, "OITNB" is obsessed with power struggles, hierarchies and displays of dominance and submission).

Even if not every storyline sings and if Season 2 occasionally lacks the forward momentum that Pipex gave it, I still marvel at the urgency that underpins much of "OITNB": These women, whom society has deemed useless, unneeded or unwanted, all have a deep need to make themselves useful to someone: As a friend, as a lover, as a worker, as a boss, or simply an improviser capable of supplying smokes or booze. What I hope for, more than anything, is that the second half of the season pulls the emotional strings taut in the home stretch, as "OITNB" did most memorably in my favorite Season 1 episode, "Tall Men with Feelings."

Like the rest of you "OITNB" ingrates, I'm greedy. It's not enough that the show passes the Bechdel test every three minutes and allows me to forget, for a few hours, that the majority of pilots that come across my desk leave the ladies in the margins. It's not enough that the show celebrates all kinds of women's bodies and brains and attitudes, and even, this season, has characters talk frankly and cheerfully about details of the female anatomy. It's not enough that all kinds of sexual and emotional terrain is covered and issues of race and class are dealt with forthrightly and amusingly.

I enjoy all that, I am entertained by all that and I want more of all that. But I want something else as well. This season, once again, I want "OITNB" to emotionally shank me when I least expect it.

In fact, I expect nothing less.

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