The dirt on the set of “Orange Is the New Black” may be fake, but it’s awfully convincing.
Brought to life on soundstages at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary is coated in a patina of grime and filth that leaves one immediately wanting to bathe in Purell. A guard station is strewn with papers while a bucket full of a mysterious, murky gray liquid sits in the corner. The bathroom is littered with shriveled old bars of soap and soggy clumps of toilet paper.
While the dramedy, created by Jenji Kohan and based on the memoir by Piper Kerman, has always attempted to capture the grim reality of life behind bars, the disorder is even more acute in Season 5, premiering Friday on Netflix.
Last year, a season-long arc about the privatization of Litchfield culminated with the death of one of the show’s most beloved characters, a young, unarmed black woman named Poussey (Samira Wiley, now facing a grave new set of problems on “The Handmaid’s Tale”), at the hands of an inexperienced corrections officer. It was a moment that not only felt very connected to current headlines, but also represented a dark turning point for a show once billed as a comedy — at least at the Emmys.
In the season ahead, Kohan is taking yet another storytelling gamble: all 13 episodes take place over the course of a three-day riot that ensues in the wake of Poussey’s death.
“I think it’s a beautiful risk that Jenji’s taking,” says Taylor Schilling, who plays Piper Chapman, a privileged young woman who is locked up for a decade-old drug offense. (The character is very loosely based on Kerman.)
During a break between scenes, Schilling is joined by costars Laura Prepon, who stars as Taylor’s manipulative girlfriend Alex, and Kate Mulgrew, better known as “Red,” a flame-haired Russian and a maternal figure to many of the inmates.
“The energy this season feels different,” says Prepon, who also directed an episode this year. “There’s an intensity level and an urgency.”
While Piper is ostensibly the show’s protagonist, “Orange Is the New Black” is the definition of an ensemble piece. There are dozens of recurring characters with fully-realized backstories who have emerged as central figures and fan favorites. They include the vivacious Taystee Jefferson (Danielle Brooks), and until last season’s tragic twist, her best friend Poussey.
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