Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Bear Television Review: Orange Is the New Black - Season Two

Despite the many advantages of premiering every episode of an entire season of a television show at one time (alcohol laced weekend binge watching notwithstanding), one major disadvantage is the increased threat of accidentally broadcasting and/or viewing spoilers.  Jenji Kohan’s “Orange Is the New Black” definitely falls into this trap where ardent fans of the first season began creating and reposting spoiler-esque memes of season two immediately after the episodes became available exclusively on Netflix. Because the construction of the show has character and plot twists built within in it that would make M. Night Shyamalan blush, there does seem to be a sense of obligation to not disclose those traps in hopes that others will feel the same sense of awe when they enter this Liz Friedman produced funhouse. An obligation that seems to weigh too heavy in some outlets, but one that we’re going to try and uphold here.

Orange Is the New Black is a comedy-drama series based on the Piper Kerman novel “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison”. The series revolves around the Kerman-like lead character Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) who is sentenced to 15 months in a women’s federal prison for transporting a suitcase of drug money to her former girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) who is an international drug smuggler/mule. While in prison Piper re-examines her relationships with both Alex and her fiancé Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs) while trying to adjust to the harsh realities of prison as well as her fellow inmates.

While season one was a hilariously tragic fish out of water story of a privileged woman being thrown into a situation where all of the usual creature comforts she used to deflect her obstacles were stripped away and she was left with only the bare essentials of her own consciousness and hands to defend herself with, season two slams her into a disorienting situation that makes her newly found and hard earned defense mechanisms seem weak and futile. Helmed by Jodie Foster, the season two premiere is an intense rollercoaster of emotions as we see Piper slide further down the rabbit hole of the penal system to depths that both rattle and unnerve. Prior to filming there were reports that Prepon would not return to the series to reprise her role of Alex, but considering that she has made appearances on season two promotional materials, it is not too much of a shocker to find her here in all of her femme fatale glory again presenting Piper with options to use her heart over her consciousness.

Also returning are fan favorites from season one whom are given the opportunity to expand their character arcs as we are given precious views of their back stories before they were incarcerated. Some of the back stories are disappointingly predictable and flaccid, e.g. Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren’s (Uzo Aduba) life before prison was lazily drawn simply as the exact same person she is now and Sister Ingalls’ (Beth Fowler) backstory for all consorted purposes seems to be used as nothing more than filler because there were extra minutes within the episode that needed to be used. Other backstories, however, were slingshot into unpredictable stratospheres that gave interesting parallax views of characters you only thought you knew in season one. Mainly Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) who’s obsession with marriage is seen in a new light, Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) is similarly given a wider view of her upbringing and love life, Cindy “Black Cindy” Hayes (Adrienne C. Moore) shows some vulnerability behind her high octane laughs and Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Lyva) shows that her tough Latina mother exterior was hard earned.

But it’s Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson’s (Danielle Brooks) backstory that surreptitiously becomes the main storyline of season two. While Piper’s transformation into a more ruthless and callous version of herself plays out comically in comparison to new inmate Brook Soso’s (Kimiko Glenn) plucky idealism, it’s Taystee’s world that seamlessly slides into the spotlight of season two as we are introduced to her surrogate mother Yvonne “Vee” Parker (Lorraine Toussaint) and her deliciously ruthless and unscrupulous ways. Being a master manipulator on the level of Machiavelli, seeing her efforts in manipulating the core elements of each inmate is similar to watching a world famous maestro conduct an orchestra.

But season two is not without its faults. Without the urgency and novelty of its premiere season, Orange Is the New Black does at times fall into a sophomore slump, relying more on its reputation than actual plot and story as some episodes drag painfully slow. And speaking of reputation, while season one did establish the show as having homoerotic overtones, season two increased the sheer volume of scenes involving woman on woman cunnilingus incrementally, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but at times comes off more as easy comedic relief as opposed to an innovative thematic trope as it did in the premiere season. It should also be noted that the spontaneity and spark of fan favorites Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) and Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning) are tragically underused in season two. However, all of the actors involved have definitely stepped up their game; particularly Dascha Polanco who plays the curvy, seductive and very much pregnant Dayanara “Daya” Diaz. While her performances in season one where arguably the weak link in a chain of stellar pieces in season one, injecting Daya with hormonal and emotional shifts due to her pregnancy gave Polanco a chance to fully embrace her character and transcend who we expected Daya to be. Equally as notable is Emma Myles who in season one played Pennsatucky’s blonde, stringy haired BFF Leanne Taylor. Only given a handful of opportunities to play off of Pennsatucky’s craziness in season one, she’s given the opportunity to break free a little in season two and claim her own independence and bring a humor and nuance to the character that was little seen in the prior season. And while season two lacks the urgency, spontaneity and novelty of season one, it is still jam packed with enough intriguing characters, stellar performances and twists and turns to make the 13+ hour series well worth binge watching, with or without alcohol.

Male Media Mind