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Netflix’s ‘Orange’ a multi-faceted look at women’s prison

“Weeds” writer Jenji Kohan is scribe behind new Netflix Presents series “Orange Is The New Black.” | GETTY IMAGES

“Weeds” writer Jenji Kohan is the scribe behind the new Netflix Presents series, “Orange Is The New Black.” | GETTY IMAGES

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Updated: August 14, 2013 6:07AM

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 aired in its entirety Thursday (and is now streaming on Netflix). It’s a classic fish-out-of-water story. Only this one happens to be true.

In the series opener (which aired Thursday night), preppy Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) entered 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.

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.

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.”

Netflix has already ordered a second batch of 13 episodes, due to begin filming July 29 for release early next year.

Gannett News Service

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