There’s a wonderful subplot in the new season of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black that follows Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat), a cranky, elderly cancer patient. A bit player in season one, she remains a marginal character with whom the show nonetheless elects to spend time. We follow her to her chemotherapy. We learn the story of her youth as a bank robber (she’s still unrepentant). We watch her grapple with her rapidly approaching death, which has become more terrible to her because she’ll be dying alone in prison.
To the other inmates at Litchfield Penitentiary, Rosa remains “that person with cancer” (maybe most memorably demonstrated when somebody misguidedly recommends her The Fault in Our Stars). But because the show is so willing to spend time with a character so peripheral, Rosa is opened up to the viewer in a way she is not for her fellow inmates. She goes from being a joke to being a person. The joke begins to be on the other inmates.
This move is subtle, and it’s effective storytelling. That dedication to telling the stories of peripheral people is what made Orange Is the New Black so good the first time around (despite some flaws). And I mention this because when I say that this second season spent a lot of time on stupid stuff that didn’t matter, I don’t mean Rosa.
For those just tuning in: Orange Is the New Black continues to follow hapless drug mule Piper Chapman and the other inmates at Litchfield Penitentiary. Last season, most of the ongoing plots were Piper-focused: Piper’s romantic troubles; Piper’s family problems; Piper’s escalating conflict with violent hillybilly cult leader Pennsatucky; and so on. This season, Piper is largely pushed to the side—probably a good decision—and instead the ongoing plot focuses on the escalating conflict between Red, the one-time powerful head of the kitchen (since booted out)…and Vee, new inmate and violent drug dealing cult leader. While Red used her powers as head of the kitchen to smuggle in nylon and makeup, Vee is bringing in cigarettes and heroin.
This plot is part of where the season goes wrong, because it is—well—boring. Vee is bad news, sure. Red and few other characters realize this, but the conflict remains mostly static until the last few episodes. They run around warning people she’s bad news or declaring their resistance to her supporters, who shrug it off. Even though the presence of drugs in prison was a really big deal last season—something one character even points out—this time, nobody really cares.
In season one, everybody seemed pretty attuned to shifts in power within the prison; this time almost everyone notes the rise of Vee with apathy, if they notice it at all. This lends the whole plotline a kind of weird pointlessness: if the people objecting to Vee had simply ignored her like everybody else, basically nothing bad would have happened. There’s no room this plotline to develop in an interesting way; instead it just treads water until the finale.
Even as the show tries to move into game changing territory—one of Vee’s first moves is to break up the show’s best and most entertaining friendships—it never really commits. The show just slots in a new funny pair of friends where the old pair would have gone and moves on. Red drew most of her social capital back in the day from smuggling in goods via the kitchen. But since she’s been exiled from the kitchen, how can she regain power? By. . .smuggling in goods a different way. The status quo keeps on getting aggressively restored, even as we’re being told the situation is getting more and more unstable.
Character development takes a hit here, too: Healy, a prison counselor who actually abandoned Piper to die back in season one (remember that?), pops back up as a sad misunderstood guy. He spends a lot of time trying to set up some kind of group therapy club with violent-psychopath-turned-cute-sidekick Pennsatucky. Why? It’s not really clear, because in the end the story just fizzles out and dies, with no lasting consequences.
That little storyline is one of many subplots that do fall under the heading “stupid stuff that doesn’t matter.” For instance, did you want to watch Piper’s terrible ex-fiancé Larry—a person with no reason to remain in this story—wander around, having conversations with Piper’s terrible best friend, Polly? No, you say? Too bad. Did you want a character whose only shtick is “social justice activist who won’t shut up?” Whether you did or not, meet Brooke Soso, a character so annoying she isn’t even funny to watch on screen. For a large part of the second season, you’re either watching the plot not advance or you’re killing time on one of these stories.
It’s hard to watch the second season without feeling something was missed here. What made the first season so great was its sense of life, and the complicated civil society that had developed within the confines of a dysfunctional prison bureaucracy. Instead of relying on staff who are at best incompetent (and at worst, abusive and corrupt), the inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary had their own unwritten rules and methods of enforcement.
Piper’s main function, in season one, was to break as many of those rules as possible, so we could be introduced to them through her mistakes. Part of what season two seemed to promise was an opportunity to explore the world without her help; to spend more time with the side characters that made the show fun to watch. That, unfortunately, didn’t happen. But what’s also unfortunate is that so much of what we did get was so dull.
The storytelling flaws here are worth dwelling on, because they are shared by the second season of Netflix’s other high-profile series, House of Cards. That season concentrated a lot of action at its beginning and its end and spent the whole middle doing nothing, basically, but tread water until the ending, when things could be allowed to happen. While everything that was superficially interesting about House of Cards remained in place, the anything-could-happen dynamism of that first season was gone.
It may be that people don’t yet really know how to approach this all-episodes-at-once format, at least in a sustained way. Bingewatch-style shows can take risks on plotlines like Rosa’s, which don’t seem at first glance to have anything to do with the bigger things going on in the story, because they don’t have to keep the viewer interested from week to week. But they run the risk of being planned like a two-hour movie when they have thirteen episodes or more of story to tell. And though the second seasons of both these shows might have made entertaining movies, they end up being pretty tedious television.