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TV Reviews : HBO Trilogy Takes Harrowing Look at ‘Women on the Inside’

Women behind bars. Women behind viewfinders.

“Prison Stories: Women on the Inside” may be the least likely entry among HBO’s made-for-cable anthologies (following on the successful heels of the “Tales From the Crypt” and “Women and Men: Stories of Seduction” trilogies). Aiming to put a new, less exploitative spin on a dated movie sub-genre, with three noted female directors--Joan Micklin Silver, Penelope Spheeris and Donna Deitch--each tackling a story about young mothers in the slammer, it’s not just a daring idea but a beautifully executed one.

For once, the focus is on the sins of the mothers, and all three teleplays offer a harrowing look at the dim prospects of children of dysfunction, poverty and incarceration, while allowing for a modicum of hope amid the grit.

The first and most touching tale, Deitch’s “Esperanza,” features two Latino actresses best known for action roles (Rachel Ticotin of “Total Recall,” Talisa Soto of “Licence to Kill”) as sisters, one on the inside and one out, ineffectually trying to keep a boy (gifted child actor Edwin Maldonado Jr.) from following Mama’s lead into his own life of pubescent crime.

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In the middle episode, Silver’s “Parole Board,” Lolita Davidovich is as much a revelation deglamorized as she was tarted up for her debut in “Blaze,” which turns out to have been no fluke. Looking like a hardened Edie Brickell, Davidovich plays a convict, still unrepentant for having killed her battering husband, faced with a parole board looking for shame, and suspense neatly builds as to whether she will find release on her own terms, theirs, or not at all.

The third offering, Spheeris’ “New Chicks,” follows a slightly more predictable course but sports excellent workouts from Rae Dawn Chong and Annabella Sciorra (“True Love”) as friends from the outside temporarily torn apart on the inside by the demands of prison life and the lure of crack.

Ace Award nominations next year are clearly in the offing for much of the work. Though Davidovich and Chong especially shine in their defiant and wounded showcase roles, the actress categories have too few slots to properly recognize the wealth of bravura emoting here. “Prison Stories” premieres on HBO tonight at 10, repeating Wednesday and numerous times in February.


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