Unless you’ve been living under a pop-culture rock (or, perhaps, have been in prison), odds are that at least one person in your life has gushed to you about Orange Is the New Black. Last July, the first season of Jenji Kohan’s dark comedy dropped on Netflix in one giant chunk, and binge-watchers everywhere mainlined all 13 episodes. Who knew women’s prison could be so entertaining?
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Netflix sure did; they renewed the series for a second season before the first one even aired. When Weeds creator Kohan adapted Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, she started a quiet revolution in television: a show without the benefit of marquee names or advance buzz, with a cast comprised almost entirely of women and minorities, that became an instant critical and popular success.
With Season Two hitting laptops everywhere on June 6th, you might not have time to catch up on the first season before this weekend’s inevitable cocktail-party recaps commence. So here’s what you need to know:
Meet Piper Chapman
Piper (Taylor Schilling) is a yuppie white lady from Park Slope with an artisanal soap business and an L.L. Bean sweater of a fiancé named Larry (American Pie‘s Jason Biggs). Her perfectly nice life gets turned on its head when she’s sent up the river for a crime she committed 10 years earlier — carrying drug money for her then-girlfriend, Alex (That ’70s Show‘s Laura Prepon). She’s sentenced to 15 months in Litchfield, a federal women’s penitentiary, which she’s determined to channel into some kind of personal-growth experience. Naturally, everything in prison immediately scares the crap out of her, and — surprise! — Alex is also one of the inmates.
Shit gets real
Piper’s acclamation to prison is a rough one. She gets starved out after unwittingly insulting the kitchen staff; stalked by an unhinged inmate called Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba); makes an enemy of reactionary corrections officer Sam Healy (Michael Harney); ends up in solitary on Thanksgiving; and starts sleeping with her old flame again. By the end of Season One, she’s been dumped by both Larry and Alex, and a face-off in the yard with right-wing nutjob Pennsatucky ends with Piper beating her fellow inmate to a bloody pulp. Prison, man.
It isn’t just about Piper and Alex
Kohan uses Piper’s WASP-out-of-water story as a way to pull us into the worlds of her fellow inmates. Their tales combine to form a rich and varied tapestry of women’s lives in America, as we learn about what landed them in the slammer through Lost-style flashbacks to their lives before the Litch. Some of the key players:
-Galina “Red” Resnikov (Kate Mulgrew): The intimidating Russian mob lady who runs the kitchen and smuggles contraband into the prison. A stand-off with loathsome prison guard nicknamed “Pornstache” (Pablo Schreiber) leads to Red’s fall from power; but expect her to take it back in Season Two.
-Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco): A young Latino inmate who’s stuck in the Litch with her terrible mother, Aleida. Daya embarks on a broom-closet romance with a guard named Bennett (Matt McGorry) and winds up pregnant. Whoops.
-Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox): A transgender woman and ex-firefighter who committed credit card fraud, and the Litch’s resident hairdresser. Between campaigning to ensure she gets her estrogen pills, Sophia tries to repair her relationship with her wife and son.
-Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne): A recovering heroin addict, and Red’s second-in-command. Nicky cracks wise like no other, and is one of Piper’s few steady allies. After fuck-buddy Morello (Yael Stone) breaks things off with her, Nicky hooks up with Alex.
-Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning): A meth-head turned evangelical Christian who has it in for Piper. She’s convinced she’s a faith healer until she gets sent to the psych ward, and returns intent on murdering Piper. No telling how she’s doing after that beating at the end of Season One.
-Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks): A bubbly young inmate with a mysterious past that includes once being topless and covered in barbecue sauce. Taystee gets out on parole, but finding no support network on the outside, lands herself back in the Litch.
All of the men are jerks.
At its heart, OITNB is about women and the ways they manage to assert control in a male-dominated world. So it’s unsurprising that all of the dudes they encounter are pretty deficient. There’s “Pornstache,” the molestation-happy, drug-smuggling guard whose machinations lead to the death of a teenage inmate; Larry, who regularly lies to Piper, uses their relationship as op-ed-writing fodder, and then kicks her to the curb; and Officer Healy, whose ameliorating smile conceals a misogynist bigot of the lowest order.
It’s a really, really funny show.
Despite its heavy subject matter, OITNB manages to be laugh-out-loud hilarious — because how better to cope with incarceration, one of the worst things that can happen to a person? For proof, check out “The Chickening,” an entire episode devoted to the inmates hunting down a mythical chicken said to be loose on the grounds, and which features this unforgettable line from Red: “All I wanted was to eat the chicken that is smarter than other chickens and to absorb its power.”
What to Expect in Season Two
You can find spoilers for the first half of the second season pretty easily online — but why would you want to? The big things to look out for: Piper is slowly losing it in solitary confinement following the Christmas beatdown she delivered; we’ll find out more about Morello, Nicky’s old flame; and there’s a new inmate at the Litch — Vee, a truly scary drug dealer played by TV-acting vet Lorraine Toussaint (Friday Night Lights). Get excited, folks