"Orange Is the New Black" was my second-favorite television show of 2013 — if you can call a series distributed solely by Netflix" television" — and if the comedy-drama about the inmates at a women's federal prison doesn't wind up quite that high in my 2014 rankings, it'll be through no fault of its own. This has been an absurdly great year for the medium — even deeper than the last one, with incredible new entries like "Fargo" and "True Detective" to go along with long-absent veterans like "Louie," plus the continued excellence of "Mad Men," "Game of Thrones," etc. — and there's going to be a lot of crowding at the top when December arrives and I am legally required to rank things in numerical order based on how they score on Dr. J. Evans Pritchard's scale of poetic greatness.
But man oh man are the first six episodes of "Orange" season 2 wonderful. In many ways, they're better than their counterparts from the first season, because Jenji Kohan has a better sense of the stories, characters and actors she has on hand, and can deploy them in even more effective fashion.
The series started out as a kind of Barbie Goes To Prison story, focusing on pampered, superficial Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) going through massive culture shock after getting arrested for a drug crime committed years earlier with then-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon). Piper, like the heroine of "Orange" creator Jenji Kohan's Showtime series "Weeds," was prickly and irritating by design, even as she was also meant to be the audience's point of entry into this strange world. This was problematic at times, but as the show's first season moved along, we got to know many of Piper's fellow inmates incredibly well — to discover that they were far more complicated than the racial stereotypes she cowered from when she first arrived. One of the first season's most powerful sequences involves Piper's irritating fiance Larry (Jason Biggs) doing a public radio story about Piper's experience, and we see the faces of these fully-realized human beings as they listen to him describe them in the caricatured terms Piper placed them in at the start of the series.
As if to mess with our expectations, the show returns (Netflix is releasing all 13 episodes tonight at midnight Pacific) not with an hour demonstrating this deep, diverse ensemble cast, but an hour in which Piper is the only regular character to appear. (Alex pops up briefly, but Prepon is a guest star this season who will appear sporadically.) But it's a strong episode — illustrating how much the events of the first season changed Piper, even as our perceptions of so many other characters changed — and it also demonstrates an awareness of the difference of the Netflix distribution model. Because Kohan knew going in that season 2 would be available for fans to instantly binge if they wanted, there's no need to worry about an all-Piper episode being the audience's first exposure to the show in nearly a year, and their only exposure to the new season for a week.
You can dive right into the next episode, which offers plenty of Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), Red (Kate Mulgrew), Sophia (Laverne Cox) and company, and then you can keep going. And though the season starts off with a Piper-centric episode, the main arc of the season (at least through the six episodes I've seen) has almost nothing to do with her, and everything to do tensions between the prison's various ethnic enclaves, many of them exacerbated by the arrival of Vee (Lorraine Toussaint, outstanding), a criminal so old-school she still refers to the guards as "screws," much to the amusement of younger inmates like Poussey (Samira Wiley).
So there's more of the whole ensemble this year — including lots of wonderful "Lost"-style flashback sequences for the supporting players — and also more of a narrative thrust to the season. Where last year was driven largely by Piper's assimilation into the prison culture and her on-again, off-again feelings for both Alex and Larry, here there's a bigger story that ramps up the tension and pace while still allowing for all the character touches Kohan and her team do so well. It's the show it was last year, but in many ways better. It's also in a better year, and we'll see how both the show and the year stack up come December, but right now, it's an enormous pleasure to have it back and in such fine form.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: As mentioned last week, my plan is to try to do regular reviews of this season, going two episodes at a time, and hopefully on a weekly schedule. Look for the first of those sometime tomorrow morning.