By Melissa Maerz
July 09, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Even though it’s set in a prison that serves tampon sandwiches for lunch, Orange Is the New Black is a pretty highbrow show, whether it’s quoting Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, name-dropping Ulysses, or analyzing Robert Frost’s ”The Road Not Taken” in a way that will permanently alter how you interpret that poem. Midway through the second season, Officer Fischer (Lauren Lapkus) makes a literary reference that’s particularly spot-on. She’s monitoring the inmates’ telephone conversations when her eyes brighten. ”It’s so interesting, all these lives,” she says. ”It’s like Dickens.”

She’s right. Orange Is the New Black might be the closest thing we have to Charles Dickens right now: a sharp denunciation of an arcane system, driven by hardscrabble characters with whimsical names that define who they are and what they like. This season delves further into the complicated lives of Poussey (Samira Wiley), Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), and Taystee (Danielle Brooks), making them even more sympathetic, especially when Taystee’s old drug-dealer boss Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) shows up. (Minor spoilers ahead.) And when Piper (Taylor Schilling) starts snooping into allegations of fraud at Litchfield, OITNB continues its savvy critique of officials who benefit from the oppression of the poor — what, exactly, is Fig (Alysia Reiner) doing with those prison funds? — and prisoners who manipulate the goodwill of officials. And there’s no better satire of white privilege on television: When Larry (Jason Biggs) tells Piper that he just stood in line for hours to get a much-hyped ”bagnut” — half bagel, half doughnut — she sighs, ”I forgot what it’s like to have all that freedom to waste.”

Maybe that’s the biggest difference from last season: Piper’s not the Whole Foods-eating, Toms-shoes-buying idealist anymore, and it’s gratifying to see her lose the wide-eyed blondie shtick. Early on, she must decide whether to tell the truth and testify against a drug lord, or lie and protect Alex (Laura Prepon), and her decision makes her want to declare herself ”a lone wolf, and a vicious one.” But these women are way too caught up in one another’s lives for that, and watching how much they depend on each other in this matriarchal world can be quite moving, from Vee saving a piece of cake for the ever-excluded Crazy Eyes to Poussey helping Taystee tailor her skirt for Career Day. When Piper wonders whether anyone would care if she died, Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) is right there to reassure her. ”You’re one Cheerio in the bulk box of life,” she says, ”but you f—in’ tickle me, so I think it would matter.” Okay, so that’s not exactly the stuff of Dickens — but that doesn’t mean it’s not profound. A

Jenji Kohan’s absorbing ensemble dramedy, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, takes viewers inside the walls of Litchfield, a minimum security women’s prison where nothing’s as simple as it seems—especially the inmates.
  • TV Show
  • 6
  • TV-MA
  • 07/11/13
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