Season premiere review: ‘Orange Is the New Black’ – ‘Thirsty Bird/Looks Blue, Tastes Red’

Netflix released the new season of “Orange Is the New Black” last night, and I offered some early thoughts on the season yesterday. My plan is to review the season two episodes at a time, at a pace that may be weekly or may be more irregular than that, just to see how things go given the collision of the Netflix distribution model with the weekly discussion model. Thoughts on the first two episodes coming up just as soon as my mom tells me my birth story…

“I think I've moved beyond stress into something more deeply disturbing.” -Piper

Like I said in yesterday's review, I'm impressed by Jenji Kohan responding to all the acclaim for the show's deep ensemble – and the ambivalence of many towards Piper (even if there are very passionate Piper/Alex partisans) – by returning with an episode that features only Piper (plus a little Alex). A big ensemble piece like “Looks Blue, Tastes Red” would have been the obvious way to open the new season: the Give the People What They Want approach. Instead, Kohan goes with a solo story for Piper, but one that was so engaging that it took me 15 minutes (until after she told her seatmate Lolly about what it felt like to beat up Pennsatucky) that I even noticed the absence of Taystee, Red, Sophia and the rest.

The show has long since moved beyond the basic idea of a privileged white woman adjusting to life in prison, but the trip to Chicago got to demonstrate both the ways in which prison has transformed her (that she can stand up to her new cellmates, and that she's relieved to realize the guy who's leering at her isn't really a sexual predator but just a hitman), but also the ways in which life behind bars can still knock her for a loop. The single-POV approach keeps us in the dark as much as it does Piper, and makes the whole experience feel more unsettling as a result. (For a few minutes on the plane – especially after the prisoner with the razor in her mouth got fitted with the Hannibal Lecter mask – I wondered if we might be heading for a women's prison riff on “Con Air.”) Any objections I have to Piper are specifically objections to Piper (and many of them are built into the character; Kohan clearly wants her to be annoying at times) and not to Taylor Schilling, who was more than up to the task of carrying this whole hour, and showing Piper being alternately strong and weak, making some good decisions and one really bad one. (Though at least now we know how the show is going to keep Alex off-camera for most of this season.)

The only really problematic part of the premiere was that the show has pretty much exhausted all the useful parts of Piper's backstory. Going back to her adolescent years was at least a change of pace, and offered a better sense of the repressed environment in which she grew up, but the flashbacks here felt obligatory: the show is designed with flashbacks in every episode, and since Piper was the only character of note in the episode, it had to be her. With the Piper flashbacks in the premiere, I was marking time until we got back to the main action, whereas I was at least as excited to get some Taystee backstory as I was to catch up with her and everyone else in the present-day scenes in “Looks Blue, Tastes Red.”

Taystee was definitely one of the breakout characters of the first season. Even though she didn't  have a ton to do until the parole arc late in that run, Danielle Brooks popped off the screen, and I was happy to not only have her get the new season's first non-Piper flashback, but to be so tied up with the introduction of the season's major new addition: Vee, played by the terrific Lorraine Toussaint(*). We see in the flashbacks that Taystee (who was given that nickname by Vee) grew up tough in the foster care system, but also had aspirations towards a non-criminal life, and only fell in with Vee because her circumstances grew so dire. It's a choice she shouldn't have had to make, but you can also see that life with Vee felt like having something resembling a functional, happy family unit, even if it eventually led her to Litchfield – and then to this unexpected family reunion when Vee arrives in an orange jumpsuit.

(*) Some of you may recognize Toussaint from her stints on “Friday Night Lights” (she played Jess' aunt Bird) or “Law & Order” (defense attorney Shambala Green), but she was one of the two leads (with Annie Potts) in one of the first critically acclaimed cable dramas, “Any Day Now,” which aired on, of all places, Lifetime. It pre-dated “The Sopranos” by a few months, and dealt with two best friends who grew up together in the South during the Civil Rights era, and was a nice mix of history and family drama. I've been waiting a while for some other cable drama to give her a regular gig, but the only one that has was “Saving Grace,” where she played Holly Hunter's  boss. Whether she's in Kohan's  long-term plans or not, the profile of this series is going to make Vee an excellent showcase for her.

The present-day storyline with the mock job fair allows Taystee to shine some more – not only does she trounce Nicky, Sophia, Flaca and the other contenders, but she's also savvy and good-natured enough to accept the consolation prize of ten extra bucks in her commissary fund rather than let the experience be ruined by the lack of an actual prize – and also allows us to reconnect quickly with many of the other inmates. We see that Red is still being blackballed both within the prison walls (where only the senior citizen inmates want anything to do with her) and without (where the local mob boss is scaring people away from her husband's business as punishment for the end of the smuggling operation), that Suzanne still waxes between realistic interests (wanting to work with mentally ill children, with whom she can relate) and stranger ones (wanting to work with round things), that Sophia still knows how to work it, and that Morello has heard of Pinterest, among other things.

It's an episode that absolutely could have worked as the season premiere, but in that place-setting way that lots of other dramas like “Mad Men” often do, where you need a few weeks to build to the really memorable stuff. By understanding that people are likely to watch a bunch of episodes at once, then structuring the season so that we get Piper's intense, strange trip to the Second City, followed by an ensemble piece that also introduces us to Vee before she arrives at the prison, Kohan and company get to have it both ways. A very promising, generous, cleverly designed start to season 2.

Some other thoughts:

* The signing of Taryn Manning to be a series regular arguably gave away the fact that Pennsatucky would survive the beating from Piper, but this also doesn't feel like the kind of show that would have Piper kill a woman with her bare hands. Instead, Doggett loses a bunch of teeth, which turns out to be a win for her, since she gets to go to an oral surgeon to have her whole mouth fixed.

* I'm almost surprised it took the show this long to bring in Lori Petty to play an inmate. Making her a prisoner in Chicago suggests she doesn't have a long-term future on the show, but given that Piper was being thrown in with an entirely new population of inmates, it was probably wise to let one of them be played by a familiar face to make the adjustment easier.

* Jodie Foster has become part of the larger Netflix stable of directors, having done an early “Orange” episode last year, a season 2 episode of “House of Cards” and now the first of these two episodes.

* Piper is, as always, more plugged into pop culture than real life, expressing concerns to Larry's dad based on “what I've seen on 'The Sopranos.'”

* And speaking of Larry, he remains perhaps the show's most annoying character, even if it's by design. Here, his response to considering Piper's ordeal in Chicago is to note that she doesn't really like deep dish.

* Though the Latinas have things good at the moment with Gloria running the kitchen, there's some tension within their ranks, as Diaz finds her mom and Gloria competing to see who can be the better maternal figure as she deals with her secret pregnancy.

* It's not TV; it's Netflix: The absence of Boo's dog is explained in swift, disturbing, hilarious fashion. “It got weird,” indeed.

* The year of McConnaughey hits a speed bump, as younger Piper and her friend make plans to see “Dazed and Confused” (alright, alright, alright), before the discovery of her father's affair ruins whatever enjoyment Piper would have gotten from her introduction to Wooderson. That's what I love about these women's prisoners, man: I get older, they… also get older, come to think of it.

Finally, let's talk spoilers. Some of you may have watched well past episode 2 by the time you read this, but we are going to aim to restrict the discussion each week to the two episodes in question (or to episodes previously reviewed in the series). So if you have seen more than what we're talking about here, please stay quiet about that. I'm a few episodes ahead right now, but I'm only discussing the content of what we're up to, and at a certain point a lot of you are going to get ahead of me. Let's all be considerate of one another, okay? Thanks.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at