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New Season Of 'Orange Is The New Black' Has A Strong, Unsettling Start

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, Netflix is unveiling the entire second season of its most popular original production the women in prison series called "Orange Is The New Black." It stars Taylor Schilling as Piper an upper-middle-class woman in prison for a drug-trafficking crime she committed a decade earlier. On today's show we feature interviews with Piper Kerman, who wrote the memoir the series is based on, and series creator Jenji Kohan, who also created the Showtime series "Weeds." First though, we check in with our TV critic David Bianculli who reminds us where the show left off and tells us the new season begins with a strong but very unsettling start.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Last summer, "Orange Is The New Black" premiered the same way it's returning for season two this summer. Beginning today, Netflix is making all 13 episodes of the season available for instant consumption. Six of those episodes were made available for critics to preview, but even the first episode of season two is plenty to remind viewers why "Orange Is The New Black" has gotten so much attention and acclaim.

Last season ended with a holiday episode. The female prisoners put on a Christmas pageant at their prison, but the festivities didn't stay festive. Piper was threatened with death by unhinged fellow inmate Pennsatucky and responded by exposing both mentally and physically. As the new season begins, about a month after that brutal beat down, we don't know whether Pennsatucky is dead or alive, and neither does Piper. In fact, when Piper is roused in the middle of the night and transported out of the prison after a month in isolation, she does not even know where she is going next. But on the way, with a chance to talk to the prisoner seated next to her, she finally uncorks all her pent-up emotions. Taylor Schilling plays Piper.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK)

TAYLOR SCHILLING: (As Piper) I did something kind of bad, and I was doing my time for it. And then I did this - I did this other thing, and I think maybe I'm going away for it for a long time.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) What - did you kill somebody?

SCHILLING: (As Piper) I don't know. I don't know. I mean, this girl - this girl she was coming after me, and she was not going to stop. And she is - or was - she was relentless. I mean, just crazy - so, so crazy. And I completely lost it. I just - I just went there and I didn't really know that there was (unintelligible) there. But I don't know if it just grew there recently, or if it's always been there but that really - that dark place - that place that let me just keep on hitting her and hitting her and hitting her. I couldn't stop. I couldn't stop.

BIANCULLI: It's a great scene - powerful, gripping and totally out of the blue. Taylor Schilling carries this opening hour as Piper goes on her unexpected detour with character-illuminating flashbacks to match. But we all know Piper will be returning to the familiar cell block and all her fellow prisoners sooner or later. And thanks to Netflix, later can be as soon as you want because you can start episode two seconds after you finish episode one.

"Orange Is The New Black" is being entered in the comedy category at the Emmy's this year, which is kind of outrageous. Some scenes are as intense as there is in any drama series. Even so, its large ensemble cast is equally adept at scenes to make you laugh out loud and scenes that make you lean forward in anticipation. As a TV-viewing experience, however quickly or slowly you devour it, "Orange Is The New Black" is captivating.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.