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.
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."
In Season 5, Taystee — an affable character generally averse to conflict and violence — takes an active role in the insurrection at Litchfield. "We're seeing Taystee, this natural-born leader, operate with a purpose — receiving justice for Poussey," Brooks explains.
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, and 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." The writers researched past riots, like the infamous uprising at New York's Attica Correctional Facility. (A deadly siege also took place at Delaware's James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in February, after production was complete.)
The drawn-out story line — 72 fictional hours filmed over the course of many months — created new challenges for cast and crew.
"This year our script supervisor is really the star of the show," jokes actress Natasha Lyonne, who plays recovering addict Nicky, and has just wrapped a scene with Prepon and Schilling.
There are immediate signs of the changes afoot: Some of the characters are dressed in street clothes rather than their usual prison scrubs and — spoiler alert — Nicky is sporting what appears to be a smooth blowout rather than her signature frizzy mane.
While she's mum about the story behind Nicky's new look, Lyonne hints that in Season 5 "the tragedy keeps mounting in a very true-to-life, horrible way," as does "the absurdity and the intensity of the surrealism and the jokes." Part of the show's appeal is Kohan's idiosyncratic tone, a singular blend of high drama and oddball humor, often in the same moment.
"The show could almost be described as one long funeral giggle," says Lyonne. "The unprocessable is constantly happening in a way that all you can do is laugh at the inappropriateness of it, but at no time losing the awareness that this is a … funeral. This show is not a wedding."
Mulgrew, a seasoned character actor, describes Kohan as "the Chekhov of Netflix” in her ability “to play on five different levels at the same time." As with Chekhov, not every actor is cut out for Kohan's writing. “You have to be on your game all the time,” says Prepon.
While Netflix does not release ratings information, the service has claimed “Orange Is the New Black” is its most-watched original series and has already renewed it through Season 7. With a cast of predominantly female characters ranging in age, race, religion, body type, class, sexuality and gender identity, the show's popularity flies in the face of stubbornly entrenched Hollywood beliefs about the supposed "risks" of diversity.
"Jenji has broken every conceivable rule," says Mulgrew. "And she keeps saying, OK, we can break another one."
The show has taken what cast member Lea DeLaria calls "a great little island of misfit toy actors from New York" — performers who hardly fit the classic starlet mold — and turned them into celebrities.
DeLaria, who plays alpha lesbian Boo, Litchfield's biggest lothario, recalls being approached by a group of teenage boys on the street in her not-yet-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood — "the ghetto of Bushwick,” as she puts it.
"I've been hospitalized for being queer-bashed. So when a large group of men are shouting at me, especially teenage men, I get a little nervous. But they caught up with me and they were like, You're on 'Orange Is the New Black. Are you Big Boo?' So I found myself getting my picture taken with a group of teenage boys that normally would probably have spit on me." (Schilling, meanwhile, says she gets lots of hugs from strangers.)
The show's ability to foster cross-cultural empathy may be even more critical in the seasons to come. "Orange Is the New Black" has been credited with raising awareness of criminal justice reform, but Donald Trump's victory has sent private prison stocks soaring. The presidential election, which fell in the middle of production on Season 5, has created a sense of urgency on set, says Lyonne.
"There are things at stake, suddenly. At a time that is so personal for so many of us, we get to be on a show that has the opportunity to reflect honestly on some of these things.”
While the issue of mass incarceration seems unlikely to go away anytime soon, Kohan is contemplating life after prison. “I might be done after year 7,” she acknowledges. "But the show itself could continue for as long as you want. It's another evergreen."
‘Orange Is the New Black’
When: Anytime, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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