‘Orange Is the New Black’ continues to captivate in second season

It was not very long ago that there was not even a term for the idea of “binge watching,” the act of devouring an entire season or more of a television series in just a few sittings. In just a span of a few years, even the definition of the word television has gone out the window, as shows released by Netflix and Amazon have won Emmy awards despite never broadcasting on a television channel. Starting with “House of Cards” in February 2013, Netflix has fundamentally changed an artistic medium by releasing every episode in a season simultaneously, removing the constraint of the timeslot from creators and audiences alike.

However, perhaps to the surprise of Netflix, it is not their intended flagship series “House of Cards” that is leading the revolution. Released in June 2013 with marginal hype, Jenji Kohan’s “Orange Is the New Black” has grown into a smash hit, earning attention not only for its release platform. From its vast and diverse ensemble cast to its fearless depictions of the complexities of race and gender, the first season found itself breaking new ground in every direction.

The second season, released in its entirety on June 6, is even better.

Hardened from her intensely dramatic fate at the end of an otherwise mostly comedic first season, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) remains the show’s core protagonist. That said, she is the subject of the show’s first major formula change; Piper is less of a fish out of water than she is a vital part of a perpetually more crowded tank. While always an ensemble show at heart, season two zooms out to focus on expanding groups inside and out of the prison; a creative decision undoubtedly influenced by another series that dived into the heart of crime and punishment, HBO’s “The Wire.”

The macro-oriented approach to storytelling in season two is almost foolishly ambitious. The number of characters involved in a multitude of ongoing subplots becomes overwhelming, but in a testament to how strong the show’s writers and cast are, never unruly. Kohan and her team know how their bread is buttered, as broader plot threads involving racial division and institutional corruption are intercut between the intensely personal flashbacks that bring incredible amounts of depth and complexity to the actions of even the show’s most secondary players.

In order to achieve being a scathing rebuke of the American prison industrial complex as well as a sympathetic study of strong yet vulnerable women with scars to bear, it is no wonder that “Orange Is the New Black” is even lengthier in its second season. Individual episodes last as long as 92 minutes, more than double the length of a traditional television drama.

This calls attention to how the show can be so good in the face of its lofty ambitions; on top of everything else, it is hysterically funny and compulsively watchable. A series that takes a serious, heartfelt look at a women’s prison is unavoidably a drama, yet “Orange Is the New Black” revels in the absurdity that comes with tragedy and the inherent suffering that drives comedy.

Season two of “Orange Is the New Black” has cemented the show as one of the best on television, assuming that is what it is still called in the near future.

Reach the reporter at zheltzel@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @zachheltzel