'Orange' is the new prison series on Netflix

9:28 PM, Jul 9, 2013   |    comments
Piper Kerman (Taylor Schilling) mentally prepares herself for her first day in prison in 'Orange Is the New Black.'(Photo: Barbara Nitke, Netflix via USA Today)
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By Gary Levin, USA TODAY

If Orange Is the New Black, are prison jumpsuits trendy?

That's the jokey metaphor in Netflix's latest original series, a sardonic look at a women's prison through the eyes of an unlikely inmate.

The show's 13-episode first season is available all at once Thursday, and it's a classic fish-out-of-water story. Only this one happens to be true.

In the series opener, preppy Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) enters prison for a 10-year-old misdeed, running drug money for ex-lover Alex Vause (Laura Prepon). Her belated debt to society, a 15-month stint in a minimum-security facility, comes at an inopportune time: She's now engaged to Larry (Jason Biggs) and starting a soapmaking business.

"She lived two lives," says series creator Jenji Kohan (Weeds), who asks two central questions in the series. "Is she the girl from 10 years ago, or is she the nice blond lady she became in the interim? How does this person adapt or cope?"

Schilling, whose only previous TV role was in NBC's short-lived medical series Mercy, says Chapman "initially is somebody who's on a relatable trajectory; she's a character we all feel we know." But "the unpacking of who she really is ... and the ambiguity of her character is really interesting."

Orange is based on a 2010 memoir by Piper Kerman, who considers her prison stint "a galvanizing experience" and is a consultant on the show. (She's the lone blinking ex-prisoner among dozens pictured in the opening credits.) Kerman first wrote of several characters portrayed - including Red (Kate Mulgrew), the redheaded Russian inmate who rules the prison kitchen, and Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), a cornrowed prisoner who's smitten with Chapman - but those characters were expanded and changed for TV.

Crazy Eyes is "such a passionate person; she loves deeply," Aduba says. "But she has a lot more going on than it looks like on the surface. She's not just crazy, she's misunderstood."

After the initial setup, the series quickly diverges from the book, expanding the back stories of a prison population - segregated by ethnicity - that also includes no-nonsense Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), ex-addict Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and a lecherous guard known as "Pornstache" (Pablo Schreiber).

"The book was relatively conflict-free," Kohan says. "She went and had these experiences, and her eyes were opened to a messed-up system. (But) it would be kind of horrific to have your real life reflected back at you week to week."

Instead, the series presents more humor. "I tend to find everything funny, sometimes to an inappropriate degree," says Kohan, who mined similar dark humor in Weeds' tale of a housewife turned pot dealer. "I'm not entertained living in darkness."

Like ABC's Lost and HBO's more brutal prison series Oz, each episode includes flashbacks of a different character's life before prison, starting with Piper and her significant others.

Kohan says she wasn't going for camp, though "I did my homework and watched Caged Heat" and other women's-prison exploitation flicks. Yet the show opens with a shower scene, and "there are certain fetishistic elements to women's prison: fascination, fear. It presses a lot of buttons."

Kerman makes clear that the series takes "dramatic departures" from her own life, though Kohan says the author found the series' sympathetic portrayals of Alex and prison guards "frustrating." The book recounts her head-bowed "survival strategies in prison," while the series is "much more amped up in terms of comedy," she says. "But what I'm thrilled about, even though the story lines are different, the themes of friendship, empathy, mental illness and substance abuse are there."

A larger issue tackled more subtly in the series is that "the prison-industrial complex is a deeply flawed business, and the whole system is lacking in any rehabilitative element," Kohan says. But though she freely admits to having an agenda, "my job isn't to stand up on a soapbox and lecture to people."

She'll have another chance. Netflix has already ordered a second batch of 13 episodes, due to begin filming July 29 for release early next year. A New York City studio and an abandoned children's psychiatric hospital in suburban Rockland County provide eerily depressing institutional stand-ins for the fictional prison, though those orange jumpsuits worn by new inmates are quickly replaced by drab khaki.

At its best, the show humanizes its characters. "You realize these women are someone's daughter, friend, neighbor, child," Aduba says. "You're not just an orange jumpsuit and a number. You are a person who had a life."

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