Leave it to HBO, which seemingly has fewer regulations than a Boystown brothel, to do for prisons what Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere did for cops and hospitals. With a cast of little-known but gifted actors, it paints a portrait that does justice to both inmate and jailer, showing how the process of incarceration damages everyone involved, even those devoted to making it more humane.
It's a portrait that, however enlightening, isn't for the faint of heart. The tone is set early on, when a white-collar newcomer is enslaved by his roommate, who tattoos a swastika on his ass; said roommate and his buddies use the word "nigger" so often you might forget it's become "the N-word." But most of the series' hardest characters wind up, at one point or another, getting a measure of sympathy from the filmmakers. As with Iago in Othello, we see the human motivations behind even heinous crimes; we also see other prisoners who strive to find meaning in a forfeited life.
There's an odd, theatrical/expressionist bent to the series that sets it apart from most gritty dramas. It works beautifully in scenes that stretch reality to present personal dynamics in more effective ways; the result is more mixed with Harold Perrineau's Augustus Hill, a wheelchair-bound inmate who's an omniscient narrator for the series. More often than not, we've already arrived at his insights before he appears. Then again, with the criminal justice system, hard points sometimes have to be hammered home.
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