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Lea DeLaria and Natasha Lyonne are among the powerfully believable women who people Orange is the New Black.Jessica Miglio

Google "strong female characters," and the top three results are "25 most powerful female TV characters"; "TV's 15 most empowered female characters" and "15 of the all-time most powerful women on TV." Somehow we've come to equate a strong character with a powerful one, at least when the character is a woman. But as the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black proves, women on TV don't have to be "strong" to be interesting – or entertaining.

The series, which returned for a second season on Friday, centres on Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a flighty WASP who is wrenched away from her fiancé in the first season and shipped off to fictional Litchfield Penitentiary, the result of smuggling drug money for her girlfriend 10 years earlier. It features a diverse cast made almost entirely of women – but as inmates at a women's federal prison, they're as powerless as rats in a cage. Much of the show's humour stems from the inmates' attempts to gain a smidgen of clout in the social world of the prison.

The show shares some DNA with the high-school-set series Friday Night Lights, which allowed its teenage characters to move on after high school, realistically replacing them with new ones. Prison, like high school, by its nature welcomes a rotating cast of characters. In Orange's second season, the most significant addition is Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), who we learn through flashbacks was a drug dealer and mother figure to Tasha (Taystee) Jefferson, played by Danielle Brooks.

Along with Piper's gradual transformation from a shaky-leaf novice to a steely-eyed, self-proclaimed "lone wolf," the flashback sequences also suggest that the major difference between these incarcerated women and the ones snuggled up on the couch watching Netflix at home is circumstance. One by one, the flashbacks show each woman as a product of her circumstances – how the people she trusted led her off course; or how she made what she thought were the right choices only to realize she'd painted herself into a corner.

And then there's the excrement. It's a fitting subject to fixate on in a setting that strips its characters of so much privacy, but it serves a larger purpose on the show. (Paging Dr. Freud.) At the start of the second season, a pregnant Daya, played by Dascha Polanco, is painfully constipated. When her mother – a fellow inmate – finds out that her daughter has asked another woman for help instead of coming to her, she conjures up a prison rarity: yogurt. The scene is played for laughs, of course, but it's also one of the more affectionate gestures we've seen yet from Daya's icy mother.

In the new season's premiere episode, directed by Jodie Foster (she also directed an episode in the first season), a temporary cellmate of Piper's belts out You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman; Foster waits just long enough for the viewer to appreciate her striking voice before a telltale plop reveals that she's sitting on the toilet in plain view of her cohabitants. The scene is emblematic of Orange's gleeful blend of obscenity and beauty, misery and comedy, horror and joy.

Often the only difference between a funny line and a heartbreaking one is the zing of its delivery: When Red (Kate Mulgrew) grills her son during a prison visit, he asks why she doesn't tell him about her life instead. "Because my life is sad and small and a burden to those I love," she bitterly replies. The line would be devastating if not for Mulgrew's bleakly comic delivery.

That overlap of humour and pathos distinguishes some of the most original comedies of the past few years: The sadly aborted Enlightened featured a lead character, played by Laura Dern, so desperately earnest in her new-agey embrace of life that you were never sure whether to laugh or cry. And there are whole episodes of Louie, starring Louis C.K., that seem to bypass funny altogether.

Orange may not be as brutal as other prison-set shows such Oz or Prison Break; with a few notable exceptions, the women only talk about doing horribly violent things to each other. And as Game of Thrones is doing its best to prove, it is becoming increasingly hard to shock TV audiences. How can you top incest, rape, slavery, murdered children and cannibals? Why even try?

Orange is closer to earth than that. When the women of Litchfield Penitentiary glare at each other, it's usually sexy, not threatening. If the show is breaking new ground, it's not because it features female characters who are the most powerful, or the sexiest, or who have the coolest wardrobes. TV doesn't need more wonder women; it needs more believable ones.