More screen time for Laverne Cox, please.

Considering how prominent she has been in the media, both for her own sake and to promote Orange is the New Black, I expected her to be all over Season 2. It wasn’t the case, and it was a real downer.

Actually, most of the season was, to be honest. The only bright spot was that we got to see more of Lauren Lapkus as timid-but-not-so-timid Fischer. And Samira Wiley as Poussey never fails to charm me with her sweetness. I hate to use the term “sophomore slump,” but it really rings true here. The complex sisterhood from Season 1 was reduced to a smattering of cheesy territorial disputes and an overload of character inconsistencies. Let’s break it down.

A ghost from Red’s (Kate Mulgrew) past appears in the form of Vee (Lorraine Toussaint). The two of them compete for other inmates’ business with smuggled goods, and it escalates quickly from petty to dangerous. Toussaint is magnificent and regal and impossible not to watch, but I began to resent her because her storyline seemed to take away screen time from the already-bursting-at-the-seams cast. Of course, it makes sense that her arc would be pretty lengthy; she’s got legitimate history with multiple inmates and it’s not like people hop in and out of jail for one or two episodes. Her presence just took over the show — maybe intentionally, since she took over the prison, too — and it felt like the writers were dangling a shiny new toy in front of the viewers because they couldn’t think of ways to flesh out the other characters, aside from their occasional “flashbacks” (which felt forced at times, too).

On the lighter but equally unnecessary side, Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) compete for pussy. It’d be funny if it didn’t bring out such shitty desperation from two otherwise lovable characters. This competition didn’t seem to be worth as much screen time as it got, either. In fact, it might have been more interesting if the other characters had talked about it in Boo and Nicky’s absence. Watching people brag about themselves is low on my list of life’s pleasures.

Taystee (Danielle Brooks), usually a calm, welcome diversion from the insanity of the prison, assumed the role of an unbearable flip-flopper. With the arrival of Vee — her guardian many years ago — her loyalty see-saws between her past and her present (Poussey) to such an annoying degree that it’s unwatchable. The choice is so clear — Poussey is the most lovable person in the prison, I’m sure — but Taystee is powerless before Vee, unable to recognize her own agency and power and instead reverting back to the child Vee assumes she still is.

Healy (Michael J. Harney) gets more time in the proverbial ring this season, a creative choice I agree with, because I think the prison’s administration is just as fascinating as its inmates. But he see-saws his way through the season too, splitting his time between lending an ear to inmates in need and lashing out at them for no apparent reason. It’s impossible to build trust in the guy — as a viewer, let alone a pawn in the fictional system — when his reaction to any one issue is unpredictable. The end result is an unlikable, icky mess — and a character that adds almost no value.

Daya (Dascha Polanco) used to be my favorite character, but Season 2’s yo-yo behavior moved her way down the list. Though her inconsistencies don’t result in high-stakes situations — she already had her A story moment in Season 1 — she’s still frustrating to watch. Maybe her emotional turbulence could be attributed to pregnancy hormones, but I don’t buy it. I think the writers were trying to manufacture drama where it didn’t exist; she and Bennett (Matt McGorry) should be way past the early-romance bullshit and working together to figure out their lives. They’re supposed to be adults.

Of course, I’m not done with this show. Not even close. I’m too invested in the stories of Alex (Laura Prepon), Lorna (Yael Stone), Nicky, Sophia and Poussey not to see this one all the way through. But my expectations for Season 3 are pretty high. They should be — the acting talent is too strong and the writing pool is deep. I’ll dive in eventually; I just hope they go for it, too.


Orange is the New Black, Season 1

Late to the party! Title of my memoir. Anyway.

The primary reason I wanted to post about the first season of this show, which is in that sweet old-but-not-that-old news spot in popular culture, is because it was built up so, so much. If you’re familiar with how I watch television — and if you are, that’s a little weird, I guess — you know that I tend to watch shows like this a few years after they come out. Cases in point: Game of Thrones, Veep, most other HBO stuff because I don’t want to pay $14.99/month yet. I waited on OITNB because the hype bugged me, and because I wasn’t sure I was that interested in the setting or the cast. The last time I tried to watch an all-female cast of something, I could hardly stand the bitchy drama. Maybe that’s anti-my-own-gender, but it’s true. I like a balance. Dudes are funny, too. (What a revelation.) As is the case with most popular television, I hate being told I’ll like something by everyone I meet.

Let me finish the thought started in the first sentence of that previous paragraph, though. It was so, so built up — and I loved it! I couldn’t wait to start the next episode. I was instantly drawn in, both by the good actors (Laverne Cox, Uzo Aduba, Dascha Polanco, Samira Wiley, Yael Stone, Taryn Manning, Natasha Lyonne, Danielle Brooks) and the mediocre (Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon), to a world around which I have no frame of reference. Like The Sopranos — a better show, to clarify — I was willing to forgive inconsistencies and mistakes because, for the most part, I wouldn’t know how to catch them anyway. I’m thankful I know nothing about being in a women’s prison, but I sure am curious about it, no matter how true-to-life the story is.

I’m probably not alone in saying that Schilling and Prepon’s acting is mediocre, but I don’t think either of them are bad actors. I like both of their characters, and by virtue of my own background, they’re the two I relate to the most, I guess. Or, I should say, Piper (Schilling) is the one I relate to, not Alex (Prepon), because she’s white and fairly sheltered and relatively happy. Before being in prison, she didn’t know prison. Her experience is completely fascinating, and I understand the actions she takes under the circumstances she’s in. I just think the relationship between Piper and Alex is… cold. Their history feels fake because their chemistry is nonexistent. That’s all.

See, though, the forgiveness comes in because every other actor is incredible. Manning, whom I hadn’t seen in anything in awhile, is so terrifying (as is her makeup) as Pennsatucky, Stone and Polanco are so genuinely sweet as Lorna and Daya, and the energy that Wiley as Poussey and Brooks as Taystee command is absolutely mesmerizing. They’re all so incredibly complex, and they beg you to hear their stories. Bit by bit, we get to hear them, and it’s such a treat. If these were all real women — and perhaps they are, though I haven’t read the memoir on which the show is based — I’d be truly honored to meet any of them. Cox, Aduba and Lyonne are in a league of their own, though, I think. Their portrayals of Sophia, Crazy Eyes and Nicky come from especially deep, dark places.

Oh, and there are dudes on this show. Thank goodness. Matt McGorry, as Officer Bennett, is as innocent as a guy can be when he’s had sex with an inmate. Nicky Sobotka, er, Pablo Schreiber is devilish as Officer Pornstache/Mendez, even if he’s a sick fuck. I honestly can’t hate him because I love the actor too much. Healy (Michael Harney) could have been written either terribly or wonderfully, it’s hard to say. His layers are bountiful. I hope I figure him out more next season, because otherwise I’ll consider him a weak link. In any case, all three provide a level of smarminess that demonstrate just how screwed up the prison system is.

And then there’s Jason Biggs. I absolutely love his performance in this show. His Larry Bloom might even be my favorite character, because he is so whole and honest, and yet so completely benevolent. He’s done nothing wrong (yet?) except for letting himself be destroyed by his own noble intentions. It’s heartbreaking to watch.

What’s also heartbreaking is realizing how stark prison life can be, and how beaten down inmates can get after awhile. The portrayals of solitary confinement, of hazing, of weapon threats, of religious fervency, are all heightened microcosms of the real world. And yet I can’t help but think that the methodology implemented in prison might actually benefit real society. Many of the characters on OITNB, like Nicky and Taystee and Poussey, are so open about their feelings that the pace of the show is noticeably swifter. They’ve cut out that unfortunately-female tendency to stew and passive-aggress (though the show is not devoid of it entirely), and the result is so refreshing.

I can’t wait for Season 2. I don’t even know what I’m waiting for, really.