Movies have been going to prison for years, embracing themes of incarceration from “Jailhouse Rock” to “The Shawshank Redemption.” “Chicago” won the best picture Oscar with some dazzling jailhouse musical numbers, while William Holden and William Hurt won best actor awards in prison films.
Television, though, has been less inclined to incarcerate itself. The goofy 1960s “Hogan’s Heroes” and HBO’s groundbreaking “Oz” leap to mind, but scripted shows that use prison life as a significant milieu have been hard to find — until recently.
At least three current shows have found a home, at least partly, in the grim penitentiary setting.
The most celebrated, of course, is “Orange Is the New Black,” Netflix’s comedy/drama set in a women’s prison that recently released its second season and seems likely to win the Emmy as outstanding comedy series Aug. 25.
But two more of this summer’s outstanding series also swirl in and out of prison — the high-stakes, highly depressing Death Row, no less.
“The Divide,” the first scripted drama ever produced by We, follows a crusading law student as she tries to free a death row inmate who she believes is innocent.
And “Rectify,” Sundance’s hypnotic, metaphorically charged sophomore series, tells the story of a former death row inmate as he tries to adjust to life in the free world after having his conviction overturned on a technicality.
The primary action in both shows is outside the prison, but in each, life inside informs every part of the dramatic action.
Other series, like Cinemax’s bawdy “Banshee,” feature characters with prison in their pasts who occasionally flash back to scenes behind bars.
In one way, it’s obvious why television wasn’t ready to set too many shows inside prisons previously. In the days before anything-goes cable productions, prison life simply was inappropriate for prime time. Shows that tried, like “Hogan’s Heroes” and Fox’s 1988 bust “Women in Prison,” drew scorn for their overly pleasant depictions. Today, though, television routinely goes beyond what Hollywood movies will depict in terms of violence and sex.
Less apparent is the issue of confinement. Two hours built around 6-by-9 cells aren’t so bad for the viewer. Week after week is another matter.
Modern series are more physically agile, though, thanks to more-mobile cameras and sound equipment, so multiple settings are easier to accomplish. “Orange Is the New Black” mixes things up by flashing back to characters’ lives before prison.
For “Rectify” and “The Divide,” prison isn’t the main physical setting, even if it is the psychological centerpiece. So the prison scenes don’t dominate the visual landscape, but when they arrive, they pop.
“Rectify” even dresses its Death Row inmates in off-white jumpsuits and sticks them in stark white cells, giving the prison sequences an alien, ethereal quality.
Ray McKinnon, the creative force behind “Rectify,” notes that for Daniel, the show’s protagonist, prison was “part dungeon and part monastery.”
“The monastery part was, he had a schedule, and he didn’t have to deal with the complexities of modern life,” McKinnon told a gathering of television critics.
Using prison as a backdrop, Death Row in particular, also gives the drama a built-in intensity. There is no need for writers to concoct life-or-death situations; they’re intrinsic to the stories.
Conversely, that seemingly black-and-white divide amplifies the moral grayness that all of these shows create when the prisoners are the protagonists and the people on the outside are their opponents.
Tony Goldwyn, co-creator of “The Divide” but better known as President Fitz on “Scandal,” told TV critics, “There are no good guys and bad guys. Everyone is good and bad.”
TV BEHIND BARS
Previous forays into prison produced mixed results. Here are some of the notable efforts.
“Hogan’s Heroes,” 1965-71, CBS — Controversial for its innocuous depiction of a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, the real offense of “Hogan’s Heroes” was its limp humor.
“The Prisoner,” 1968, CBS — Patrick McGoohan starred in this British-made series about a spy sent to a bizarre prison. Psychedelic, metaphorical and utterly wacky, “The Prisoner” retains a cult following. Remade as a miniseries in 2009.
“Women in Prison,” 1987-88, Fox — This one-season wonder had a setup not unlike that of “Orange Is the New Black” but enjoyed considerably less success. Julia Campbell played a yuppie sent to prison, where she served time with a varied cast. C.C.H. Pounder, Peggy Cass and Wendie Jo Sperber co-starred.
“Oz,” 1997-2003, HBO — The first one-hour drama series produced by HBO took place in an imposing maximum security prison in New York. The large ensemble cast included Ernie Hudson, Harold Perrineau Jr., J.K Simmons and Dean Winters.
“Prison Break,” 2005-09, Fox — A long-form adventure saga about a group of prisoners who escape and go on the run. “Prison Break” ran out of story steam when everyone realized you could only break out of prison once.
“Orange Is The New Black” airs on Netflix streaming service. Both seasons are available in their entirety.
“Rectify” airs at 9 p.m. Thursdays on Sundance Channel.
“The Divide” airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on We.