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t’s Code Red for ‘Orange’: Risk-taking Netflix dramedy is at it again

June 10, 2017 GMT

ASTORIA, N.Y. — 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 that makes one immediately want to bathe in Purell. A guard station is strewn with papers and a bucket of mysterious, murky gray liquid sits in a corner. The bathroom is littered with shriveled 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 tonight on Netflix.

Last year, a season-long arc about the privatization of Litchfield culminated in 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.

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 back stories 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.

In a phone interview, Kohan says she and her team of writers decided to kill off Poussey because “we felt her death would resonate the most. We were like, ‘What’s going to have the most impact?’ It’s the person with a future that gets snuffed out.”

Even for a show plugged into the zeitgeist, the Poussey storyline, with its Black Lives Matter echoes, felt very much ripped from the circa-2016 headlines.

“Saying goodbye to Poussey has been devastating because of what she represents,” says Brooks, who also attended Juilliard with Wiley, in an email. “She has become the fictional voice for so many realistic stories.”

Poussey’s fate is “a tragic evergreen,” says Kohan. “This is so not a new story. People just have phones now. It’s something that has existed for a long time and will for a long time and should be an embarrassment to this country. It’s timeless.”

Kohan and her writers started work on this season as they always do — by binge-watching the previous season as a group, then discussing how to move forward.

“We wanted to slow things down a little bit,” she says. “We felt really excited by the notion of a riot in almost real time.”