First Impressions takes a look at new and returning TV shows, just as they’re kicking off. We fill you in, spoiler-free.
Last weekend, Netflix’s best show came back for its second season. I’ve eagerly but reservedly anticipated the show’s return, hoping it could maintain the humor, humanism, and narrative polish that so characterized its first season. After House of Cards, easily the streaming service’s most popular and well-manicured series, faltered and stalled out in its sophomore season, the long-term viability of Netflix’s original series has seemed to me to be in question.
Here’s the early verdict: after watching the first two episodes, I’m happy to say: Orange is the New Black is just as good as ever.
The season premier opens with Piper undergoing a sort of extraordinary rendition to a mystery penitentiary after spending an untold amount of time in SHU. As a result, Piper finds herself in a brand new prison environment, complete with a host of bizarre new challenges and as many ridiculous acquaintances.
In a sense, spending the entire first episode in a completely foreign environment is not exactly what we’re looking for right off the bat. We want to be back in Litchfield, Pennsylvania’s federal prison for women. We want to see Nicky, Red, Taystee, Morello, Crazy Eyes, and of course, Pornstache again. We want the whole mess of beautiful misfits. After all, the incredible breadth of the show’s cast of characters and the dexterity with which the writers balance and explore each individual personality is the show’s prime strength (not dissimilar, in fact, to other cult favorites like Twin Peaks, Lost and Game of Thrones).
But the first episode actually operates a clever narrative hook by imposing a fascinating sense of disorientation throughout, both internally (from Piper’s point of view) and externally (from the viewer’s point of view). Following the relatively disturbing note on which season one ended, both Piper and the viewer are tortuously asking themselves the same scary questions: what is the medical status of Pennsatucky? Is she OK? Is she dead? Is Piper being re-sentenced? Why is she being transferred?
As a result, the first episode plays as an engaging and active experience that substantially intrigues the viewer until the nature of the situation is made clear. Without spoiling anything, suffice it to say the first episode ends with an ironic and all-too-idiosynchratic twist of fate for Piper, and one that is likely to dramatically animate one of the show’s key relationships throughout the season.
By the second episode we’re back in Litchfield, and the crew is up to its old hijinks. In addition to some pretty silly goings-on, and it’s awesome to see some of my favorite characters again. (Red, so badass! Morello, so adorable!) But the character I was most happy to see was by far the show’s weirdest: Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett. I honestly cannot describe how much this character makes the show for me. Taryn Manning’s strikingly all-in performance as the meth-mouthed Jesus freak is a thing of profound beauty and humor. Her unique ability to convey the character’s perverse combination of malice and sincerity is a truly exceptional piece of acting. Just absolutely brilliant.
I get the sense that some potential viewers, mostly male, are alienated by certain things about the show: the emphasis on cultural diversity and experiential empathy, its sensible attitude toward female sexuality, its somewhat cartoonish (but not exaggerated) depiction of male buffoonery and abusiveness, and other various too-progressive-to-be-true associations that tend to characterize the show as overly preachy, political, and self-righteous.
While it’s true that a big component of the show is its message-oriented content, I’d like to emphasize that rarely does the message overwhelm the art. The show’s various progressive features are all laudable, but that’s not why I love the show and it’s not why I encourage others to watch the show. I say watch the show because it’s hilariously written, engagingly plotted, endearingly acted, and beautifully arranged.
And if like me, you’re a heterosexual white male, you might just learn something.