‘Orange Is the New Black’ digs deeper in second season

05/29/2014 3:15 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Sometime during her month in solitary confinement, Piper Chapman crosses over.

In the second season of “Orange Is the New Black,” the bisexual blond Brooklynite becomes more like her fellow inmates than the people she left behind.

Even after friends and family hear she has been in solitary for weeks, then yanked from her cell and whisked without explanation to a Supermax hellhole in Chicago, they don’t get it.

“Chicago? But Piper hates deep dish pizza!” “That’s what I said!” As though being shackled to an airplane seat in the dead of night is going to end with extra pepperoni.

Based on a real-life memoir, “Orange Is the New Black” became a surprise hit for Netflix last year, joining “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development” in their binge-friendly, all-at-once release strategy. The video streaming site releases the entirety of Season 2 of “Orange” on Friday.

Piper, a child of privilege who once smuggled money for her drug-dealing girlfriend, is serving a 15-month sentence, and her first weeks inside became an amusing wake-up call for Season 1 fans, who simultaneously sympathized with her predicament and scorned her entitlement.

“Oh my God, Larry,” she whined to her fiance, “by the time I get out, there’ll have been, like, three new generations of iPhone.”

She definitely had some toughening up to do. Along the way we met the women of color, older women, poor women and addicts who made the show feel so revolutionary, even if we had to follow a pretty white girl into prison to meet them.

Piper’s relationship with Alex (Laura Prepon) rears its ugly head again in the season opener, with a well-deserved dig at the federal court system. It’s an ugly moment, but the sometimes-strident advocacy of “Orange Is the New Black” is easier to swallow because no one, inside or out, gets a pass, and sometimes its villains redeem themselves.

What’s more disturbing: that one of the guys running the prison is in a band called Sideboob, or that he’s the only one trying to fix the sewage backup in the showers?

In Chicago, Piper (Taylor Schilling) quickly learns that every prison is its own isolated city-state, with unique rules, traditions and cavity searches. But Netflix’s comedy-drama hit still focuses most of its attention on the women serving time at Litchfield, a fictional minimum-security prison in New York. The oblivious display of privilege on the outside drives home the show’s stark statements on misogyny, class, race and corruption.

Piper’s new cellmates in Supermax tape cigarettes to cockroach couriers, then threaten her life if she can’t recruit new vermin. Somewhere in Williamsburg, her old friends wait for hours to score a bagnut, the trendy pastry hybrid that turns out to be a bagel with frosting.

Back at Litchfield, the frosting comes on confetti cakes, but only after the game-changing arrival of Vee (Lorraine Toussaint). The formidable repeat offender quickly starts trading favors with Mendoza (Selenis Leyva), the Latina leader running the kitchen since the ouster of Red (Kate Mulgrew).

Red isn’t herself as the season begins, forced to eat lunch with the Alzheimer’s and crochet crowd, the gray roots of her once-garish hair putting her depression on display. But Red and Vee have history, and it’s the kind that sends Red running for a cut, color and manicure. “I want to look fierce,” she tells Sophia (Laverne Cox).

But for now, Red’s revival can’t change who’s running the kitchen, and Mendoza isn’t accommodating any special dietary requests.

“Prison is gluten,” she rants. “Don’t do the crime if you can’t eat the flour.”

Mendoza’s tragic backstory rewinds to a time when she ran a store where you could buy beer, cash in food stamps and have a spell cast by the old lady in the back. She’s a pillar of bad judgment, but she doesn’t have such great options, either.

“Orange Is the New Black,” which was created by Jenji Kohan (Showtime’s “Weeds”), walks a tightrope between shining a harsh light on the disastrous decision-making that landed the ladies at Litchfield and displaying their formative years with compassion. Their pasts are less “Shawshank Redemption” than “Goodfellas,” with every episode using sparse, smartly edited scenes to tell one inmate’s story.

We learn a lot more about Vee, Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba). But the most fascinating flashbacks belong to Lorna Morello — she of the fuchsia lipstick and never-seen fiance. When Morello (Yael Stone) can no longer wallow in denial and her past smashes into her present, her delusional wedding planning gives way to one of the show’s biggest “she did not just do that!” moments ever.

As in the first season, Piper’s return to Litchfield’s general population is marked by shady dealing from her counselor, Healy (Michael Harney), contraband and bathroom drama. And in a nice twist, Piper is forced to bunk with an overeducated Occupy Wall Streeter who can’t stop babbling about half-baked existentialism — kind of like Piper sharing her unwelcome analysis of Robert Frost when she was a new fish.

Shrill, stubborn and just plain foolish at times, Piper herself remains a frustrating presence in the world of “Orange Is the New Black.” Luckily for us, as the show moves further afield from her origin story, it reminds us again and again of that awful truth Piper still can’t quite accept: that it’s not all about her.

To reach Sara Smith, send email to ssmith@kcstar.com. On Twitter: @SarawatchesKC.

WHERE TO WATCH

All 13 episodes of Season 2 of “Orange Is the New Black” will be available Friday on Netflix.

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