“Orange is the New Black”: Jailhouse Rocks

Netflix' addictive women's prison drama returns for a second season Friday, sentencing fans to a weekend of binge-watching.

Regina Spektor's “You’ve Got Time,” the smoking theme to "Orange is the New Black," includes the hauntingly rendered line, "Everything is different the second time around. 

We'll soon see if that holds true for Netflix' addictive women's prison drama, which returns for a second season Friday, sentencing fans to a weekend of binge-watching. 

The show's sophomore effort debuts as "OITNB" gains not only recognizable acronym status, but edges toward becoming a pop culture phenomenon, while transcending mere entertainment. Laverne Cox, who plays prisoner Sophia, appears on the cover of the latest TIME magazine, next to the headline: “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.”

The Netflix original program, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir about her year in prison, has built a strong following. That might be in part because there’s never been anything like “OITNB” (unless you count the at-times campy 1970s-1980s Australian TV soap opera, “Prisoner: Cell Block H”).

But the grip of “OITNB” likely rests firmest in the various characters’ compelling stories (and backstories), which slowly unfolded in Season One. Red, we discovered, is far more than an iron-fisted kitchen dictator. Crazy Eyes is far more than a lunatic stalker. Ms. Claudette is far more than the prison's severe matriarch.

The prisoners' transformations after their freedom was taken away reveal strengths and foibles. That's true of the show's flawed, ostensible protagonist, Piper Chapman, an upper middle class prep school type whose relationship with a drug-dealing girlfriend while in their 20s makes them cell mates a decade later.

There's no statute of limitations on powerful feelings, Piper learns, as she juggles mixed emotions over her ex, Alex, and her fiancé, Larry, while acclimating uneasily to jailhouse culture. We've seen Piper go from being a near-helpless prison neophyte to viciously beating messianic meth-head Pennsatuckey in last season's finale.

The prisoners’ journeys – filled with past and present travails, amid a backdrop of good guards, bad guards, schemes, feuding jailhouse factions and even pregnancy – smack less of soap opera than of intense drama tinged with a realistic ambiguity. Peace of mind is as elusive as the mysterious chicken that can't decide whether it prefers life on the inside or outside.

"This is not how I imagined prison to be at all," a new inmate notes in the Season 2 trailer.

It’s unlikely many imagined that “OITNB” would grow into a major Netflix event when the show arrived last July, just weeks after the much-heralded return of "Arrested Development" on the streaming service. “OITNB” is this year’s undisputed Netflix buzz machine – the Season 2 trailer had logged nearly 8 million hits on YouTube by Wednesday afternoon, while the program’s impending return has generated great media interest.

For the uninitiated, to paraphrase Spektor’s song, you’ve got time to catch up with the 13 episodes of Season 1. The rest of us will be marking time until Friday.

In the meantime, check out the NSFW Season 2 preview here, and click below for the opening credits, featuring Spektor’s tone-setting song: 

Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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