At the end of last year, I said that Netflix’s Orange is the New Black was one of the best shows of 2013. Now, a little over halfway into 2014, I can just about promise that there will not be another show as high-quality as OITNB’s second season. The reason for this is simple: the cast of characters on OITNB is the strongest and most compelling group of people on television.
The show, which originally focused on the story of Piper Chapman, has drifted away from telling her story. With the exception of the first episode, which set up a story for Piper that wouldn’t force her to continue the same routine developed in the first season, Piper became less of a “lead character” and joined the ensemble. Yes, her plot points often featured her as the sole inmate involved, but her story came up much less frequently throughout the second season. And no offense to Piper (what world is this that I’m saying “no offense” to a fictional character), but quite frankly her story no more compelling than those of the girls surrounding her, which is where the show begins to rise to greatness.
Continuing the theme of breaking the routine is evident in the Latina kitchen staff. Last season set the show on course for a feud that, ultimately, didn’t really seem to happen. They teased us with tense moments where Red and Gloria, respectively head chefs past and present, seemed to be on the verge of an all-out brawl. But, the creative team instead chose realism, as there was no all-out fistfight; the women in the kitchen don’t want unnecessary trouble, and Red is not one to try and fight an uphill battle. The women in the kitchen are instead thrust into an interesting role for the second season: that of the audience. They, like the viewers at home, watch the action of Litchfield for entertainment. Plus, the creative team uses the kitchen staff to dispense justice to other characters, through tainted food or other methods, whether or not we at home feel it’s fair. Is it all manipulation designed to make the viewers feel sympathy for certain characters? Yes. Is it well-placed in the show so we don’t realize it’s happening? Of course. Do I care? Not at all.
Having briefly mentioned her, it is only fair to elaborate on what’s become of Red. Red, who was the most prominent of the non-Piper inmates at Litchfield during the first season, had only received an single episode’s worth of flashbacks for the audience to piece together her past, and that was only before she was incarcerated. The audience knows that for her to have reached the position of power and respect she held, there must have been some incredible things she did at Litchfield, and we finally got our first taste of her first years in prison here. There was one particular flashback that, in my mind, changed the course of the season entirely. Again, I’m trying to keep it relatively spoiler-free, but an action by newcomer Vee and her friends served to not only increase the audience’s love for Red, but to also answer some of the constant questions about Vee. This, combined with the temporary loss of Red’s “family” and the current status of her family business has only served to increase Red’s role as one of the sympathetic characters on the show. Plus, it helps that Kate Mulgrew (who won a Critic’s Choice Award for her portrayal and is likely to receive an Emmy nomination this week) plays her with phenomenal grace and realism. And yet, Kohan and the creative team have only whet our appetites, and I still have plenty of questions I want answers to, and moments in Red’s life I want to see.
Since I’ve mentioned Vee a few times in the above paragraph, I think now is an appropriate time to bring to light the group of characters that quickly became the strongest group of characters on the show: the black girls. Vee mentioned multiple times that in her day, they “ran this prison,” which must have been similar to the way that they ran this show. Granted, I went into this season thinking that Taystee was the best character on the show because she was just a barrel of fun, but she and her friends quickly grew out of the “comedic relief” roles they had so frequently been thrown into during the first season. They quickly became their own cohesive unit, full of some of the most heart-wrenching backstories in Litchfield (if you can tell me that Poussey’s high school experience wasn’t tremendously sad I’ll just assume you have no heart).
The relatively surface-deep traits we had seen in the first season grew to be what made them, as well as the plot, so compelling. Taystee’s giddiness and optimism only served to cloud her judgement; Poussey’s loyalty to Taystee and the girls (and how quickly it was rebuffed) became a point of contention. The apparent instability of Suzanne, or ’Crazy-Eyes,’ for those who didn’t find happen to find themselves yelling “No, Suzanne!” during the season finale, not only served to increase sympathy for her (again, only the heartless could not find themselves not feeling pity during her childhood, or at her graduation) but also to reconsider how we view the other women in the prison. This occurs most notably with Vee and her entourage: while Vee’s change in behavior is more apparent, look at how Suzanne is treated by Taystee, Poussey, Cindy, and Watson in the first few episodes, and try and compare it to the end of the season. Also, a little bit of a sidebar, but I will take this chance to apologize to Taystee, and to officially designate Poussey as my new favorite character on this show. Sorry.
There’s a mountain of further material to discuss here: the counseling and aid given to inmates, especially the elderly; the prominence of a transgender character and actress (Laverne Cox, who shines as Sophia); government corruption and the political campaign system; or even just how the creative team perfected their balance of comedy and drama. But those aren’t the reasons I sat down to watch OITNB. In an age where every big series is based around a middle-aged white, male, anti-hero, or a laugh track, or a mockumentary sitcom, Orange serves as the antithesis: providing high-quality television with no gimmicks, just compelling characters.
And don’t worry about the fact that it may not get any Emmy love this year–the upcoming Emmys will showcase season one, with the 2015 Emmys honoring the superior season two–but it doesn’t matter. Those awards shouldn’t the the only reason you watch a show (but if they are, take a quick look at OITNB’s fresh new Peabody Award). Orange is the New Black has the most compelling group characters on television, a group with brilliant nuances and and lives full of comedy and tragedy, lives that we’ve only begun to explore. And I personally can’t wait to see what happens next.