The second season of Orange Is the New Black arrives Friday with some new characters, an expanded focus on the microcosm of Litchfield Penitentiary for women and an even deeper exploration of the back stories of the inmates.
There's almost no point in worrying about spoilers because so many fans will be binge-watching Orange just after midnight Thursday, you'll be lucky to avoid a discussion of even the most rudimentary plot development by noon. Still, for the sake of preserving the sheer joy of watching the 13 new episodes, we'll be avoiding any real spoilers here.
In a general sense, though, what creator Jenji Kohan has done is to be expected, because we saw it happening last year. The longer Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) spends at Litchfield, the more she's had to adapt to the rules — those set by the prison and those established by the inmates as they've developed a mini United Nations of race, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
As she began to be absorbed into the general population, we started paying equal attention to the other inmates, and that underscores one of the most compelling themes of the series: How does an individual maintain identity within a social milieu?
The exploration of that theme continues in season 2, which examines Piper's relationship with her fiancé, Larry (Jason Biggs), and her ex-lover Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), but also tells us more about the other women, including Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren (Uzo Aduba), who, as we already realized, is far more intelligent than others might think; and Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett (Taryn Manning), the drug-addicted religious zealot who pushed Piper over the edge last season.
We learn even more about Lorna Morello (Yael Stone), whose belief in happily-ever- after has a more disturbing side; Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson (Danielle Brooks), who revisits her childhood when her mentor shows up in the prison; and Poussey (Samira Washington), who learned in her youth the dangers of allowing herself to care about others too much.
Orange is, of course, a brilliant character study, but it's also a political drama. Like House of Cards, another Netflix hit, Orange is about power — how to get it, how to keep it, and how to keep others from getting it. Of course, it's true among the inmate population (we see a major battle brewing this season between black and Latina inmates). But Kohan nicely underscores the theme by exploring power within relationships — not only that of Larry and Piper, of Piper and Alex, and of Poussey and Taystee, but also that of guard John Bennett (Matt McGorry) and his secret inmate lover, Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco), and prison official Sam Healy (Michael Harney) and his Russian girlfriend, Kaya (Sanja Danilovic).
The joy of watching Orange is in the writing and performances, but it's also in the process we go through getting to know these characters. We think we have a take on them, then find out that even the cruelest guard has a heart, that even the most loyal ally is capable of betrayal. That's not unusual in TV, but what is unique is making such profound character revelations credible.
For viewers, this means that knowing the Orange characters is a continuing process. We find out, say, how Suzanne grew up, and it's not only a surprise but immediately prompts us to reconsider everything we thought about her and to look at her with new understanding.
Through the six episodes of the second season made available to critics, it's clear that Orange is not only as great as it was the first season, but arguably even better. If you're wondering where to find true TV greatness now that Breaking Bad is gone and Mad Men has hit the pause button till 2015, look no further than Orange Is the New Black. It's terrific.