By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist June 9, 2014 at 3:41PM
If you were at the movies this past weekend, you were likely weeping over "The Fault In Our Stars" or thrilling to Tom Cruise in "Edge Of Tomorrow," while small-screen viewers gathered around for the giant battle for The Wall in "Game Of Thrones." But plenty of us were getting our binge on, because Friday brought one of the most hotly-anticipated events of the summer: the arrival of the entire second season of Netflix's "Orange Is The New Black."
The show, based on author Piper Kerman's book about her transition from privileged WASP to minimum-security prison inmate following money laundering and drug trafficking charges, went under-the-radar at first unlike the streaming service's other high-profile premieres like "House Of Cards," "Arrested Development" and even "Hemlock Grove." But word soon got around that it was by far the best of them, and it swiftly became a word-of-mouth hit, and one of the most critically acclaimed shows of 2013.
Eleven months on, the show returned for season two, and the good news is that it's better than ever. Sure, it's still not perfect —there's still some tonal issues, and the flashbacks can occasionally be a little heavy-handed in their reflection of an episode's overarching theme. But while not all of the weaknesses have been worked out, some have been, and many of the already-existing strengths have been built on. Having caught up on the show over the weekend, below you'll find five reasons that season 2 of 'OITNB' is even better than its first run. Let us know what you think in the comments section. And spoilers are ahead, so be warned.
1. It's more formally daring than before.
The first season of the show was written and filmed assuming that it would be rolled out week-on-week like any other series: only after it was in the can did Netflix decide that they'd be following the lead of "House Of Cards" and debuting the series all in one batch. So the second time around, creator Jenji Kohan, her writers, and the audience, know the game and what to expect, and the result is that it's able to play with formula in some interesting ways. In general, the show follows its one-character-gets-a-flashback-per-episode structure again (cribbed from "Lost" to some degree, but just as effective here), but it immediately throws out a curveball, with a first episode focusing entirely on Piper and not featuring any other series regulars (except her ex-girlfriend and reason for imprisonment, Alex), hinting that the show could completely reboot itself this season. The writing's good enough that when Piper checks into the new prison in Chicago, the new characters are rich and well-drawn enough that you almost believe that Kohan is about to rip it up and start again. It's not quite that bold, but the second episode (which is Piper-free) also reminds you that the show could just as easily write out its ostensible lead and prove just as excellent. The macro-storytelling is much smarter this time around too: the season-long arcs, particularly the three-way struggle for power between Red, Gloria and new arrival Vee (see below), are much more satisfying and carefully plotted.
2. It digs wider and deeper into the best ensemble on TV
Many have described Taylor Schilling's Piper as the sort of trojan horse of "Orange Is The New Black," using a photogenic upper-middle-class blonde lady as a way to sneak in stories that aren't necessarily going to be an easy sell to TV-watching audiences, in the same way that "The Wire" disguised its wider socio-economic scope in the guise of a cop show. As a result, in season one, we were introduced to an expansive and diverse cast of fascinating characters, played by terrific actors known and unknown. And with season two, the writers have expanded that line-up, and found new notes to play with the ones we already knew. Almost everyone featured in a large part in the first season gets new texture, from Piper and Red, who has to tackle, and fight against, a growing irrelevance, to kooky-looking guard Fischer and semi-benign bureaucrat Caputo. Those who were virtually background players in the first season, like the sweet-natured Taystee, the lovelorn Poussey, kitchen boss Gloria or cancer-stricken Miss Rosa, have some real dramatic meat to sink their teeth into this time, as do the handful of new arrivals. By the end, it's successfully juggling almost as many as characters as "Game Of Thrones," and without having to stretch storylines to three minutes per episode while it does so.