Film & Television

The Pros and Cons of ‘Orange is the New Black’

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In 1993, Piper Kerman was experimenting with all the things you might expect from a young Smith graduate. You know. . . lesbianism, drug trafficking, money laundering. . . the usual stuff. She soon left her life of crime though and became an upstanding citizen, only to be implicated five years later. After a six-year delay (driven by the system, not by Kerman), which gave her “time to really ponder and really think about what I had done and those consequences that I was going to be facing,” she surrendered herself to Danbury, Connecticut’s minimum-security federal correctional institution.

The year she spent there became the material for her New York Times bestseller Orange is the New Black.

What made Kerman’s story so utterly irresistible was that she didn’t look like our preconceived notion of a con. She was from a solid upper middle-class family. She had graduated from a prestigious women’s college. She was blonde. As similar demographics rushed to buy her book, there was a distinct sense of “there but for the grace of God go I.” Plus, the whole women behind bars thing has titillated people long before Sabrina, Kelly and Jill went undercover to bust the warden’s prostitution ring in Charlie’s Angels, 1976. The combination was a surefire hit.

Enter Jenji Kohan, a creative powerhouse who made a name and not a little notoriety for herself (plus boatloads of money for Showtime) with the hit series Weeds. Starring Emmy-winner Mary-Louise Parker, the show followed the adventures of a widowed mother who became a dope dealer to support her family’s comfortable McMansion lifestyle. After reading Orange, Kohan felt an immediate appreciation for the story, the author and most importantly, the possibilities. “So, I went for it,” she says. With the solid foundation of Kerman’s memoir, Kohan and her team filled “Litchfield Prison” with extraordinarily embroidered characters.

Orange is the New Black, now available in its third season, has been an enormous hit for video-on-demand giant Netflix. Commonly shortened to OITNB, probably to accommodate Twitter character counts, the show is the network’s most popular, surpassing the even bleaker critical darling House of Cards.

One of OITNB’s strengths is the diversity of its cast. Taylor Schilling is wide-eyed ingénue Piper and Laura Prepon is her ex-lover (“the Bettie Page of Litchfield”) Alex Vause. The cast includes wonderful older pros like Kate Mulgrew, Michael Harney, and Annie Golden. But, the rank and file is made up of relatively unknown black, white, Asian and Latina actresses, many of whom credit Kohan and the show for reviving their careers. “I had just about given up,” is a constant refrain when these women—fine actresses all—are interviewed. Until recently, Hollywood didn’t offer much to women who didn’t fit the mold. Orange is an anomaly, and, by all accounts, the set is an unusually harmonious one. Spending most of her waking hours at work, Kohan insists on camaraderie and collaboration; no divas or bitches allowed.

Gender identity is key to Kerman’s true story and to the greater prison experience. OITNB doesn’t shy away from it. There are many allusions to “gay for the stay,” and in season one, Piper is startled when the particularly short-circuited prisoner Crazy Eyes (incredible Emmy-winner Uzo Aduba) tries to make her her “prison wife.” In keeping with the material, the ensemble includes self-described “Bulldyke in a China Shop” comedian Lea DeLaria, transsexual Time cover girl Laverne Cox and, most recently, the gender-neutral and elaborately tattooed Ruby Rose. Although the sex isn’t gratuitous, necessarily, there is plenty of it. (You might not want to watch with your kids or grandkids.)

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