3. It celebrates and explores female characters more than any other show right now
So far, the golden age of cable TV drama has been something of a sausage fest. There are the occasional exceptions ("Weeds" and "Nurse Jackie"), and some strong female characters, but the vast majority of the seminal shows of the last decade or two have dealt with men, from "The Sopranos" to "True Detective." 'OITNB' is the major exception, and indeed, serves as something of a celebration of women, of all shapes, sizes and races. It's hard to think of another series in the history of television that has as many women who actually look like everyday women, and who aren't just there to serve as props during sex scenes. That's not to say that the show's lacking in the obligatory pay-cable nudity, but the male gaze is nowhere to be found here, and any nudity tends to be justified rather than intended to titillate. And it's not just paying lip service to its characters: the show deals with issues that you suspect a male showrunner wouldn't even dream of attempting, most notably a remarkable sub-plot in an early episode of season two discussing, in great detail, the anatomy of the vagina. You don't get that on "Silicon Valley"...
4. Taylor Schilling is better than ever
If the Playlist office is anything to go by, the most divisive element of season one of the series was top-billed star Taylor Schilling. Once known almost solely for her turn in the Nicholas Sparks adaptation "The Lucky One," Schilling won most of us over swiftly, but a few people found her performance shallow and a bit sitcom-y. But straight off the bat in season two, Schilling should put the criticisms to rest: she's terrific in the showcase first episode, absolutely killing an emotional monologue about her assault on Pennsatucky in a way that should bring her plenty of Emmy attention (though not until 2015 — only season one is up for consideration this year). Schilling also has an admirable comic touch, and gets to flex that more often, and her lightness of touch sells the show's tonal shifts, and makes the whole thing feel more palatable. We'd probably argue that there are better performances in the show (though it's hard to pick favorites in this superb cast), but Schilling does anchor 'OINTB,' and generously enough that she's happy to take a back seat when required.
5. Lorraine Toussaint
The show doesn't go overboard with adding new characters, but when it does present someone new, it's done it where it counts. Chatty bohemian Brooke So-So (Kimiko Glenn) is a gloriously irritating figure, but season two's absolute gem is the ferocious, manipulative Vee, played by the great Lorraine Toussaint, who was so good a couple of years back in Ava DuVernay's "Middle Of Nowhere." Season one slightly lacked a strong antagonist, with Pablo Schreiber's Pornstache being more pathetic than terrifying, but with Vee around (a heroin-dealing former mother figure to Taystee, and old adversary of Red's, who's reincarcerated in Litchfield at the end of episode two), season two has no such problem. Vee is smart, ruthless, hugely dangerous, and a real threat to many of the characters. And Toussaint is spectacularly good in the part, shifting on a dime between warm and matriarchal to chilly and brutal (her scene with Gloria, where she tearfully manipulates her way into getting some of her crew in the kitchen, deserves an Emmy all of its own). Sadly, *SPOILER*, it looks like we won't have Toussaint around for season three, and we do worry that this suggests the kind of antagonist-of-the-season structure that grew tired so fast on "Dexter" and "Boardwalk Empire," but we certainly relished having her around while she lasted, and look forward to her reteaming with DuVernay on the upcoming "Selma."
Anything you think we missed? Do you agree that the series has gotten better, or do you find season 2 a step down? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.