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Dave Bartlett
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Second season of ‘Orange is the New Black’ goes from single protagonist to composite cast

While I try to limit how much I marathon through a show these days, I was planning to spend at least a day or two watching a chunk of the second season of “Orange is the New Black” when Netflix uploaded its original series last month.

A promotional image shows some of the large cast of the Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black.” — Submitted image

It stands to reason that if the show never ran as a weekly serial then why feel obligated to try and watch it that way? But it only took one episode to remember that it’s a show I’ve never felt inclined to watch more than 60 minutes at one time.

Sometimes a show is a little too disturbing or intense and I need to step away. Other times the humour becomes repetitive or a character tiring or the story just loses steam. But none of that is the case here.

While I watched the season premiere shortly after the show was posted, it’s taken me several weeks to watch the first handful of episodes. It’s still really good and I enjoy it immensely as I watch. But after each episode I feel like it’s time for something else.

While the first season was largely about Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she serves a 15-month prison sentence for carrying drug money over international boarders, the second continues to explore the back-stories of some of other inmates and broadens into a larger story about life inside. Of course this makes sense as the show was based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, and if the show is going to survive for very long it needs to expand that story.

What’s interesting is how clearly the show marks this transformation at the beginning of its sophomore season. The first episode follows Piper as she is moved from solitary confinement in “The Shoe,” but she doesn’t know where she is going as she is driven to the airport and put on a Department of Corrections plane, destination unknown.

The second episode goes back to the prison and inmates we met last season, but happens at the same time as Episode 1, meaning protagonist Piper is not in it at all.

She returns for Episode 3, but from then on the shows feels less about her and more about the large cast as a whole. Granted, we got to know many of the other inmates last season, but Piper was clearly the focus.

After four episodes of the new season, several characters from Season 1 have also seen much less screen — including Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), Diaz (Dascha Polanco) Alex (Laura Prepon) and most of the prison’s staff — while others such as Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) and Red (Kate Mulgrew) seem to be getting more.

There’s also been less of Piper’s fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) which I don’t mind, though the scenes he’s been in have been pretty funny.

That being said, two new characters are certainly becoming more important to the story including the young, recently incarcerated activist/idealist Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) who does not shut up, and Vee. The later is a woman from Taystee’s past, who is back in prison after many years on the outside.  

She is also an old prison rival of Red’s and is amazed at how life on the inside has changed in her absence.

She starts to try to put things back that way using manipulation and intimidation.

Red, meanwhile, continues her exile from the kitchens she used to run, but the long-term inmate has a new trick up her sleeve and has enlisted the other aging inmates — who are more interested in crochet than inmate politics — as a cover.

And these are only a couple of story lines, adding to a number of threads started last season. There’s no question, a lot of narrative gets crammed into each episode, yet nothing feels rushed.

I’ve also started to notice just how many scenes involve a single character, and no dialogue, especially in the last episode I watched, where Red explores the prison’s old greenhouse while Lorna (Yael Stone) goes on the lam after learning her former fiancé is getting married.

The surprise in Lorna’s back-story makes her character all the more compelling, but I think I like her a bit less now. She certainly is far more creepy than you first realize during her appearances as the sweet, celebrity-obsessed inmate in Season 1. And the anatomy lesson episode was just amazing, especially when the prison educated elite — Piper, Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman) and Sister Jane (Beth Fowler) — realize their knowledge is more general then they would like to admit. That leads to a classroom-like lesson by transgender inmate Sophia.

It was nothing that I expected, but it done expertly with the show’s careful hand which blends realism, humour and absurdity with all the other emotions you’d expect from life inside, and knits these stories together overtime by bouncing back and forth between short scenes. I plan to take my time and enjoy the rest of it.

Dave Bartlett muses about watching habits, TV shows, new and old, and anything related to whatever he may be watching at the moment. Email him at talkingtelevsion@gmail.com.

Organizations: Department of Corrections

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