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New season worthy of viewers' Orange crush

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Schilling: wearing the wrong SHU

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Schilling: wearing the wrong SHU

Piper Chapman, the fictional inmate at the centre of Jenji Kohan's magnificently layered and wickedly seamy Netflix dramedy Orange Is the New Black, has been sent to one of the Litchfield women's correctional facility's solitary confinement cells, a.k.a. "the SHU" (Special Housing Unit), after giving another inmate a good pummeling at the end of the series' first season.

There she's been losing her grip and using her breakfast goop to brush nature paintings on the walls. The solitude is a good opportunity to think about what got her (and us) to this point. Since entering prison as a fragile and fallen Mary Sunshine from gentrified Brooklyn who was busted on a decade-old trafficking charge, Chapman (Taylor Schilling has been slowly discovering her inner thug.

The show's second season, which began streaming on Netflix just after midnight, strongly suggests that the woman formerly known as Piper is perhaps exactly where she belongs. This is home now.

In terms of character and ambitious writing and acting, Orange Is the New Black is certainly one of the best shows going, however you choose to watch it -- whether by parcelling out an episode every few nights and making it last into the summer (that's what I'd recommend) or gorging on all 13 new episodes over a weekend (in which case, knock yourself out).

The show is often nasty and sometimes distastefully cruel to its characters, but it also easily forges a deep and authentic emotional connection to the viewer. There are frequent reminders that it's as much of a dark comedy as it is a social study. In one of the new episodes, there is protracted debate about the location of the urethra in relation to the vagina -- a matter definitively settled by Burset, a transgender inmate (played by Laverne Cox) -- and a competition between two lesbian inmates, Big Boo and Nichols (Lea DeLaria and Natasha Lyonne) to see who can seduce the largest number of inmates, with a special emphasis on orgasm. I sometimes like to imagine the male-centric world of TV showrunners, producers, writers and even critics getting light-headed and passing out while they watch the show.

On a not-so-subliminal level, Orange is asking us to consider all the deplorable, despicable male TV characters we've embraced over the years and, in turn, demonstrate a similarly complex empathy for the women doing time at Litchfield. The show continues to clearly demonstrate that writing strong roles for women -- and lots of them -- is not the artistically elusive problem it's been made out to be; a network simply has to want to do it.

It's also easy to praise the show for the way it acquaints us with the rituals and degradations of the modern American penal system. I'll leave it to prison reform advocates and former inmates to judge the relative precision of the details, but, as a television series based on a best-selling memoir, it certainly passes my sniff test: Do you watch it and feel like you've gone to prison? Yes. And is it interesting? Always.

Race is a more central theme in this season's first six episodes, as one of Litchfield's ex-cons, Vee (Lorraine Toussaint, a new cast member) begins insidiously sowing unrest among the black inmates.

The real treasure in Orange Is the New Black are the flashback scenes in which we learn the personal stories of individual characters -- the details they keep most private, about who they were before prison and what crimes landed them there.

Long after running through all the episodes, you find yourself still thinking about these women. "It's so interesting, all these lives," says a corrections officer (Lauren Lapkus) who has taken to eavesdropping on their phone calls, which are recorded. "It's like reading Dickens."

This could possibly be a classically subtle Kohan jab at all those critics who compared HBO's The Wire to sprawling 19th-century literature. But in the case of Orange Is the New Black, it also rings quite true.

 

-- The Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 6, 2014 D2

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