“Smart Entertainment“ is the buzzword floating around “Orange is the New Black”, Netflix’s wildly popular original TV series. It’s a case of content molding to form. By the nature of Netflix’s distribution (all at once), certain shows can maintain their integrity, but the best minutely-drawn, complex TV universes prime time and cable have given us don’t translate well into the binge-heavy scheme of Netflix Instant Watch. So “Orange is the New Black” was never expected to be the perfect meditation on race, oppressive prison systems and class, but it still offers up a fairly intelligent dialogue without sacrificing its guilty-pleasure roots … mostly. In Season One, the structure of the show often ran up against its “Smart Entertainment” wall, and the incredible cast diversity (in race, sexuality, and body type) felt like it was wasted on familiar tropes and stereotypes, like the sexy Latinas with snappy tongues or the Black characters who popped up too often for comic relief.
Orange Is the New Black
Season Two has improved on this problem, partly by shifting the lenses away from its white “Trojan Horse,” the-easy-to-despise privileged Piper (Taylor Schilling) and spending more time with the characters who actually inhabit America’s prison-system. Taystee’s backstory, in particular, deftly carves out a realistic background that introduces Season Two’s main villainess, the fabulous Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), a sociopathic drug distributor who acts as a surrogate mother for the neighborhood kids in exchange for involvement in her local “business.” Apparently, like the island on “Lost,” everyone seems to end up at Lichtfield, so it’s not really a surprise when Vee walks through the door by the end of the episode (and that she and Red are old frenemies). The show rarely goes in an unexpected direction, and if you have a semi-observant eye or just watch a lot of TV, you’ll be able to map out the trajectory of a lot of subplots as soon as they appear. Case in point: as soon as we see a frazzled Polly walking topless around Larry and bemoaning her absent husband, it’s inevitable that they’re going to get together. In other plot arcs, this over-transparency is negated by a strong cast that picks up the predictable narrative structure’s slack, but since Larry and Polly (especially together) offer no redeemable characterization, it was superfluous.
Especially since these scenes take us out of the Lichtfield microcosm: Season Two integrates some ambitious commentary on institutional corruption (especially prescient with the recent news on the atrocious conditions at Riverhead correctional facility, where OINTB is shot) that felt absent last season. In one of the most poignant character arcs, and one that was constructed with surprising subtlety and restraint, Jimmy (Pat Squire) renders a wholly moving portrait of the dire mental health and geratric care afforded to inmates. That plotline feels more successful than Figueroa’s (Alysia Reiner) money-laundering one, which falls into the heavy-handed problem, though it is reassuring to see the writers are equal opportunists about doling out clichés. However, the theme of external bureaucratic shuffling provides a smart foil to the building racial tensions that dominated Season Two, and the adjoining prison politics. In Season One, the prison milieu was too vast at times, and it evaded any interesting inter-group conflict (or just contact). The looming prison war that Season Two steadily builds up to addresses that problem.
On the entertainment side, the show’s comedic writing is sharper than ever. Not only in the acerbic prison one-liners (Piper’s memorable line, “He’s a hitman? I thought he was a rapist. I’m so relieved!”), but also the acerbic and far-reaching references peppered throughout (The Fault in the Stars, Louis Althusser, Big Pharma all get funny mentions) make the show undeniably watchable. But that was never OINTB’s weak point.