Novelty is the key to making “Orange is the New Black’’ a success. It’s arguably the biggest television hit that doesn’t air on a traditional television network. It’s a show full of lively female characters in a television environment populated by glum male antiheroes. It tackles completely unique subject matter in a world of endless doctor, lawyer, and cop shows. Its two biggest breakout stars are a transgender woman and another who boasts a rather astonishing comeback story.
There’s really nothing else on television quite like “OITNB,’’ which is why the clamor for the new season’s release approached “Thrones’’ levels (seriously, was there any other topic on social media in the second half of last week?) as Friday came near. Before we hit this new season, let’s just touch on the big points from last year’s finale: Larry (Jason Biggs) ended things with Piper (Taylor Schilling); Piper tried to get back with Alex (Laura Prepon), the cause of her incarceration, only to be shot down by her on-and-off lover, fresh off of a hook-up with Nicky (Natasha Lyonne). After an emotional Piper breaks down at the prison’s Christmas pageant, she flees to the prison yard, where the insane “Christian’’ inmate Doggett attacks her in full angel costume. The season ended with Piper going “Fight Club’’ on Doggett — certainly the biggest women’s prison ass-kicking we’ve ever seen on television.
Jodie Foster directs the season 2 premiere — she was behind the lens on the third episode of the first season — and the first episode (which became available June 6) reshuffles the board quite a bit. The familiar friendly and unfriendly faces from season 1 are nowhere to be found. Piper is isolated in a dank, ugly cell somewhere, punishment for her Doggett beat-down. She’s hustled out of isolation in the middle of the night, loaded on a bus and then onto an inmate-filled plane to destinations unknown, echoing “Con Air’’ without Nicolas Cage’s southern “accent’’ or John Malkovich munching on the scenery.
The resetting gives the show an opportunity to examine its lead, much to “Orange is the New Black’’’s benefit. For much of season 1, Piper was one of the least interesting characters on the show, at least in relation to the colorful ensemble around her. At the start of season 1, that is-this-really-happening wonder is still there, but Schilling has started to tap into the darker edges of Chapman, making her beaten-down and world-weary. She’s got a marvelous scene on that plane, speaking to an inmate who looks like a rougher version of Ellen DeGeneres, thinking about how she got there. “I completely lost it … and I just went there. And I didn’t even know there was a there there,’’ she says, on the verge of breaking down.
To illustrate that psychology Foster and the writers give us a flashbacks to Piper’s childhood — little Piper was a do-gooder of a kiddo, at least until she spotted her dad squire-ing around a woman that wasn’t her mom. The rest of her sheltered Connecticut adolescence, it appears, was built on a shaky foundation of lies and repressed emotions. Telling the truth about her father’s infidelities earns Piper a punishment from her barely-blinking mom, and her grandmother delivers a road map to psychological trauma when Piper tells her about the cheating.
The girl never had a chance, and as this episode shows, that childhood atmosphere of lies and stapled-on smiles has dire consequences. As it turns out, Piper’s destination is an ugly institution in Chicago (it looks like a dingier version of the unit from “Oz’’), populated by a terrifying group of cellmates that train cockroaches to deliver cigarettes. She doesn’t do herself any favors by squishing the most reliable of their cockroach brigade as she arrives, setting off a fruitless search for a replacement bug. Prison is an icky place.
She’s in Chicago to testify at the trial of the guy who got her in trouble in the first place – the drug dealer Kubra, Alex’s old boss. Alex is there, too, still with those awesome glasses, pushing Piper to join with her in fibbing solidarity about their relationship to Kubra. She asks her to lie under oath and say she’s never met Kubra, a proposal that Piper’s lawyer/father-in-law, the most sensible character on the show by miles and miles, warns her against.
Considering that road map she was provided, it’s not that surprising Piper makes the choice she does, spitting out the Alex-approved lies on the stand. Nor is it surprising that Alex royally screws her over again, telling the truth about the whole relationship with Kubra to the law — getting herself off the hook and adding a bit of perjury jail time to an understandably enraged Piper. Those who don’t learn from their past are doomed to repeat it.
Episode 1 of season 2 was a smart, successful premiere that does everything a good first installment should do, setting up the roadmap for the season to come. How much extra time in the slammer did Piper’s fibbing earn her? Will she be in Chicago much longer, or is she headed back to the familiar faces in Litchfield? Is her relationship with Larry really cooked? Can Alex (Laura Prepon was billed as a guest star) stay on the straight-and-narrow on the outside? Is Piper ever, ever, ever going to learn? “The Sopranos’’ went from great to transcendent when it started to go back in time to examine the sources of Tony’s psychosis. “OITNB,’’ in its second season, seems to be following that path. It’s a good one to tread.
Other thoughts, as I look around my apartment for cockroaches that might be able to do my laundry:
—Obviously, these recaps will follow a different bit of a schedule, seeing as how the entire season gets dropped on us all at once. I’m limiting myself to one episode a week. Considering I blew through one season “House of Cards’’ in a weekend, this is going to take a serious degree of restraint.
—Still having trouble accepting Laura Prepon as a brunette. “That 70’s Show’’ was a seminal show of my childhood.
—Taylor Schilling (Piper Chapman) is a Bay Stater, born here in Boston and raised in Medfield. She spoke with Boston Magazine last year.
—Another oldie, but a goodie – the OITNB cast being omgadorbz.
—It took me until watching the second season to make the Jason Biggs — Natasha Lyonne “American Pie’’ connection. Then I realized that that movie came out fifteen years ago. I’m old.
—Next week: “Looks Blue, Tastes Red,’’ directed by Michael Trim and written by Jenji Kohan.