Jenji Kohan's dark comedy set in a women's prison is at it's best when it explores the lives of the most diverse and interesting ensemble on television
With all due respect to the awards heaped at the door of “House of Cards,” the most anticipated Netflix release to date has to be the second season of “Orange Is the New Black.”
While Netflix won't release any hard viewership numbers, social media has made it pretty clear that plenty of people are already binge-watching the 13-episode season, which premiered midnight Friday. It's a tall order for anyone to have made it through the entire season within the first day, but that hasn't stopped critics from chiming in with their takes on what they've seen so far.
As with the first season, recaps and reviews are staggering in for viewers of all endurance levels. Some are sticking to a review of just the first episode, while others have made it as far as halfway through the episodes — the amount available in advance. That first installment, in particular, was a bit off-putting to some critics, as it focused entirely on the aftermath of Piper's (Taylor Schilling) attack on Pennsatucky (Tayrn Manning) at the close of Season 1.
After all, it was the entire ensemble cast that catapulted the show into the pop culture conversation, so their absence in the premiere was very felt. In fact, some could argue that Piper has turned out to be the least interesting character on a show filled with big personalities. Okay, to be fair, the least interesting character is probably her fiance, Larry (Jason Biggs), but she might be a close second. It was all the other women of Litchfield that made Season 1 a show you couldn't stop watching.
After watching the first six episodes, TheWrap's Diane Garrett suggested that this season may not be as binge-worthy as the first, but only “because the storytelling has deepened.” She admitted to binging the first season, and loving it, but suggested it might be better to slow down this time. “The episodes deserve to be savored individually, much like later episodes of ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Mad Men,'” she wrote.
“‘Orange Is the New Black’ is as scatological as ever in the second season and leans awfully heavily on lesbian sex to the point of repetition,” wrote Garrett. “But where it shines most is when it shows the sense of dislocation inmates can have from being shuffled around with little explanation. Prisoners come and go, and they all seem to have a story … The stories, and the characters, are indeed rich. Let's hope they stay that way.”
The New York Times’ Kate Zernike reviewed just the season premiere, noting that it definitely moved the show in a darker direction.
“Are we supposed to believe that [Piper] lies simply because she grew up in Cheeverville?” asked Zernike. “Or can she just simply not survive in prison without touch, as she told the wheelchair-bound liquor store thief in the “Scared Straight” episode in Season One? Piper is definitely back on her tilt-a-whirl. But she's more alone than ever, and you have to wonder how she pretties herself out of this one.”
The A.V. Club's Myles McNutt settled for a two-episode start. While being somewhat critical of the premiere's Piper focus, he was nevertheless impressed with her acting performance.
“Whereas the stories in Piper's episode mostly existed to serve the plot, [in the second episode] we see stories being told to serve character, and to live briefly in the peace that Leanne mentions when describing what life was like in Litchfield without Pennsatucky,” McNutt wrote. “The biggest problem with the first season finale and this season's premiere is that there's so much plot there's no room to capture what made the show so strong before the stakes grew unwieldy; this second episode returns the show to its best self, but with the acknowledgment that more plot may be around the corner.”
The Wire's Esther Zuckerman powered through the first four installments, focusing on the impact Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), a character from Taystee's (Danielle Brooks) past, could wind up having on the entire prison when she winds up there alongside Taystee.
“The racial divides among the inmates of Litchfield have always been a part of ‘OITNB,” Zuckerman wrote. “But Vee promises to bring them into even more striking focus as the season continues. ‘Black women used to run this place,’ she tells ["Crazy Eyes"] (Uzo Aduba). Sounds like she wants to go back to the good old days.”
The Atlantic's Spencer Kornhaber made it through the first six episodes, declaring this second season “ridiculously fun.”
“Using the privileged white Piper as a “Trojan horse” [as described by creator Jenji Kohan in an NPR interview] into a world rarely depicted on TV, and pumping up the personalities of a supporting cast that's by a huge factor more diverse than any rival show, Kohan has grabbed a lot of peoples’ attention,” wrote Kornhaber. “At the very least, that means prisoners, usually forgotten by pop culture, are now front of mind. At the very most–well, let's see what Season 2 does. From what I can tell so far, it's like the first one but more in almost every way: more fun, more crass, more ridiculous, and also, yes, more conscientious.”