What felt fresh about “Orange Is the New Black” has quickly gone a bit stale, at least if the first half-dozen episodes from season two are any indication. Netflix’s women-in-prison dramedy emerged as a surprise success and burnished the service’s reputation on the heels of “House of Cards,” but both have discovered that creating sparks and keeping them smoldering are formidably disparate tasks. While loyal fans (and due to Netflix’s strategy, there’s no way of knowing exactly how many there are) will surely hail its return, “Orange’s” new stay offers a less-compelling incentive to lock oneself away to binge it.
Based on Piper Kernan’s memoir, the first season experienced the dehumanizing aspects of prison through the eyes of its shell-shocked protagonist Piper (Taylor Schilling), who found herself separated from her fiancé (Jason Biggs) and surrounded by a cuckoo’s-nest assortment of characters. Series creator Jenji Kohan then opened up and fleshed out the seemingly claustrophobic concept by delving into inmates’ histories, revealing unexpected layers that went well beyond the caricatures.
Season two opens with an awkward detour – dealing with the fallout from Piper’s past aggression, while she’s whisked away from the facility to sort out her future (with Laura Prepon in a guest role). After that, the second hour goes back to Litchfield prison, reintroducing the rest of the cast, while Schilling temporarily remains absent.
By episode three, the show returns to a more familiar rhythm, but the plots – with a few noteworthy exceptions – don’t pop quite so readily, and some flashbacks feel clunkier this time around. Not surprisingly, the best of those involves Yael Stone, who remains sensational as the oddly accented Morello.
On balance, the show hasn’t benefited from cast comings and goings, though a new arrival (Kimiko Glenn) does pick up some of the wide-eyed wonder Piper – now older, wiser and harder – provided in season one.
There are still plenty of things to like about the series, which at its best explores female relationships and class disparities through a prism one rarely sees on mainstream TV. The lack of privacy and intrusive conditions also invite an organic level of explicitness and blue humor, which isn’t always true of boundary-pushing series.
That said, the new season’s highlights feel more scattershot, and the plot offers less urgency. All of which would be OK, provided “Orange” doesn’t fall victim to the quirks and excesses that characterized the later seasons of Kohan’s “Weeds,” which began with a similar ordinary-woman-turned-outlaw premise.
In a very pay-cable-like “The numbers don’t matter if we like it” maneuver, Netflix has already renewed “Orange” for a third season, a vote of confidence that means Piper had better get accustomed to her unflattering attire. The streaming service is no doubt hoping for awards attention to augment “House of Cards’ ” breakthroughs (both programs won the prestigious Peabody), although further kudos are by no means a given due to the show’s hybrid nature. (The early second-season review date, incidentally, was set by Netflix.)
Then again, worrying about “Orange” going for the gold is a trifle premature, since the series faces a more immediate challenge – namely, staying as creatively hip and fashionable as its title suggests.