“Going to jail” is always a more compelling TV premise than “still being in jail.” So the whole idea of a second season for Orange Is The New Black might have posed a challenge. But the Netflix drama’s second season, released as one big ruin-your-life binge, is even stronger than the already-amazing first one. The female inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary are unlike any other characters on TV — everywhere you look, some dynamic actress is gnawing the marrow out of a role she’s spent her whole career fighting for. There’s hardly a single character on Orange you don’t crave more time with, which is why binging on the new season just makes you that much hungrier for the next season.
For all its inventiveness, Orange follows the classic reality-TV template: a house full of women, locked up together. Part of the brilliance of Season One was how Weeds‘ Jenji Kohan revamped this decrepit model for the prestige-cable-serial market. As with captivity dramas from Rock of Love to Real Housewives, from Project Runway to The Bad Girls Club, you keep asking yourself “Which one would I be?” while rooting for your favorites. It wasn’t Piper’s story, not by a long shot — it was an entire anthology of characters, with each one getting her own backstory and her own heartbreaking flashbacks.
If the first season seemed a bit like The Breakfast Club, with Taylor Schilling’s Piper in the Molly Ringwald prissy-little-princess role, eating sushi for lunch at detention, the second is the sequel that never happened: The Breakfast Club 2: One More Saturday Morning. Piper’s born-innocent heroine was easily the least interesting jailbird at first, but she’s gotten more complex in her time behind bars. She doesn’t like the person she has turned into — but she doesn’t like the person she was before, either.
And although the premise was that Piper was the new girl in town, just passing through, she finds out, like Linda Lavin on Alice, that she’s gonna stay a while. At the end of the first episode, Piper (spoiler! [though only if you’ve literally never watched a single TV show in your life!)] gets additional jail time tacked on to her sentence. The plot twist might not be a surprise — the whole story depends on keeping Piper in prison longer — but the details are agonizing to watch, as Piper lets her ex-girlriend Alex (Laura Prepon) sucker her into taking a perjury rap.
Yet Piper’s extra lockdown time means more time we get to hang out with the jailhouse crew. It’s a pleasure to meet up again with Danielle Brooks’s Taystee, Natasha Lyonne’s Nicky, Samira Wiley’s Pouseey, Yael Stone’s Lorna (who’s even more tragic than we all realized) and Kate Mulgrew’s Red, who remains fearsome even as she adapts to her lesser status, now that she’s no longer running the kitchen or hunting chickens. Red also has a new enemy, the most charismatic villain here: Lorraine Touissant’s Vee.
If you don’t have 13 hours to spare and you’re looking for an exceptionally awesome episode or two to sample, the fourth episode — “A Whole Other Hole” — is the funniest (lots of filthy prison-sex talk), while the sixth episode — “You Also Get a Pizza” — (themed around Valentine’s Day) is the most surprisingly sentimental. (It’s been a good year for Valentine’s Day episodes, between this and the Mad Men where Don Draper and Sally bond over a patty melt.) Jackie Cruz’s Flaca compares the feeling of being in love to taking a bath in chocolate pudding while listening to the Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” (Her Moz love came up last season, when Martiza dismissed the Smiths as “pussy music,” triggering an instant-classic argument. “‘How Soon Is Now’ is like, an Eighties anthem.” “Bitch, you were born in ’92!”) I also love when Flaca gets her hands on an iPod: “Ugh, it’s full of Fleet Foxes and shit.”
Despite the binge release, Orange isn’t really dependent on the over-arching narrative. So there’s less urgent need to watch them all in order than there was with Netflix’s other big binge-release success, House of Cards — partly because that one was more plot-driven, but partly also because it came out in the dead of winter, when spending 13 consecutive hours indoors seems like a sane survival strategy rather than a different kind of prison sentence.
But even if you shotgun through the whole season, you’re guaranteed go back and scrutinize the episodes one by one, watching with the care they deserve (and reward). It’s structured so that it’s easy to revisit favorite characters and their stories — the tragedies in their horrifying pasts contrast with the humor and sex and intrigue they use to make it through their equally horrifying present. And a cast like this — so many killer actresses, so many twisted characters for them to inhabit — only comes around every century or so. Orange Is The New Black was already a massive achievement the first time around. It’s startling to see it get even better.