Prison show allows creative freedom

Posted Thursday, Jul. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Orange Is the New Black • All 13 episodes available beginning Thursday • Netflix.com

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While researching her role for a women-in-prison TV series, actress Taylor Schilling also learned quite a bit about herself.

First and foremost was the discovery that she doesn’t have what it takes to last one day behind bars. “I think I would probably be eaten alive in there,” she says.

Yet Schilling has had the time of her life as the new “fish” in pretend prison, as the star of Orange Is the New Black.

“Once I read the script,” she says, “I was ready to do anything to be a part of it.”

That’s because it’s one of the best new TV shows of the summer.

Only it isn’t on television. Orange Is the New Black is on Netflix’s increasingly popular video streaming service. Beginning Thursday, all 13 first-season episodes of the comedic drama are available for immediate viewing.

Schilling plays Piper Chapman, a yuppie Brooklynite whose life is turned upside-down because of her past ties to an international drug runner.

Now Piper finds herself wearing an orange jumpsuit and serving a one-year term in a minimum-security women’s prison where the rules of polite society that she knew on the outside no longer apply.

Here are some other aspects of prison life that Schilling discovered.

“I never thought about how loud prison was,” she says. “I’ve never thought about how your ears never really get a break from all this noise. I never thought about how the lights don’t go out, so you never really rest in that way. And I never really thought about the intensity of being watched all the time.”

In short, if there was the slightest chance that Schilling might be tempted to lead a life of crime, Orange Is the New Black has scared her straight.

Taken from real life

The show is based on Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir about her year behind bars for money laundering. It was adapted into a series by Jenji Kohan, creator of Showtime’s Weeds.

Kohan fell in love with the notion of making a show about women in prison because “it’s one of those places where you can juxtapose all sorts of groups and force them to deal with one another. I felt this is such a rich world inhabited by real people with great stories.”

Schilling (who previously starred in Mercy, a short-lived medical drama for NBC, and The Lucky One, the movie adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel) was eager to get involved because “I was really impressed that it’s about a woman who is the centerpiece of her own story, not in reaction to a man.”

And both of them, the actress and the producer, are ecstatic about being on Netflix.

“I was sort of burned by my last series [which aired in 2009-10],” Schilling says. “I had a hard time on TV and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that again. But it feels really nice not to have anybody talking about ratings. And it’s nice to feel like there’s one person running the ship [as opposed to being micromanaged by a gaggle of network and studio executives].”

As for Kohan, she isn’t sure she could have gotten Orange Is the New Black on conventional TV.

“If you go to a network and you say, ‘I want to talk about Latinos and blacks and their prison experience and the cycle of poverty,’ it’s not going to be a big sale,” she points out.

The Netflix way

But Netflix, Kohan says, has guts. The fact that the show has already been picked up for a second season, prior to receiving ratings figures of any kind, is proof that the company believes in the show.

Kohan also likes that all 13 episodes from Season 1 are available for immediate consumption.

“I think it’s awesome,” she says. “It’s instant gratification, which has its plusses and minuses, but it’s so nice to be able to get what you want when you want it.”

And although the real Piper spent only a year in prison, Kohan is hoping for a much longer run.

“As long as they’ll have us,” she says. “Four hundred years. It’s going on forever, as long as viewers are interested in these characters and the stories. It’s prison. We can make the rules.”

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