Back in 1998, when Piper Kerman, a bourgie, blond Smith College graduate, was beginning a 15-month sentence for drug trafficking and money laundering at a minimum security prison in Danbury, Conn., she didn’t think to herself, “Okay, it’s a good thing that 12 years ago, when I was 22, I became entangled with a woman who convinced me to transport money for a heroin dealer in West Africa. Because while I’m incarcerated I’ll write tons of letters to friends that describe my experience in detail, and when I get out, so many people will hang on every word of my stories that I’ll collect those letters and use them as the basis of a memoir. I’ll call it something cheeky – say, Orange is the New Black – and then Jenji Kohan, the Emmy-winning writer/producer (Weeds), will create a Netflix series of the same name. It will be a dramedy, mixing black comedy with harsh reality and genuine emotion. It will star an actress named Taylor Schilling, who looks a lot like me, only she’ll be called Piper Chapman in the show. And it will be so provocative that Netflix will order a second season before the first season even airs.” Had Kerman known that would all come true, it might have made her incarceration easier. But at the time, she was mainly thinking about how she could get her hands on a toothbrush.
Kerman, now a communications strategist for non-profit organizations, was in Toronto last Friday, the day after Netflix began streaming all 13 hours of Orange at once, the same way they released their other original series, including House of Cards and Arrested Development. Looking at Kerman, with her big blue eyes, sharp suit, and finishing-school diction, it was easy to see why a character on the show calls her Prison Barbie. Also in Toronto was Laura Prepon (Donna on That ’70s Show), who plays Chapman’s furious and broken-hearted ex-girlfriend Alex, the woman who convinced Chapman to commit her crime. (Ratcheting up the drama, she’s doing time in the same prison.) And on the phone was Kohan, who comes from a showbiz family – her father Buz wrote music and variety programs, including The Carol Burnett Show, and her brother David co-created Will and Grace – and who loves exploring the nuances of human transgressions, especially female ones.
“I live in the world of flawed people. I love flawed characters, I love flawed human beings,” says Kohan, whose warmth and enthusiasm bubbled even over the phone. “Being a criminal and going to prison is just another kind of flaw. It’s an extreme example of how we all screw up, but we all do it. That’s inherently relatable.”
Kohan calls Kerman her “gateway drug” into this micro-community. “I couldn’t go into a network and say, ‘There are really good stories about black women and Latinas and old women in prison,’” she says. “But if I put a yuppie girl-next-door in there, and bring the audience in through her, I can then tell all those stories.” Episodes of Orange are peopled with more women than most of us have ever seen on a screen, even on a female-friendly medium like television – as Kohan puts it, “100 women of all ages, shapes, sizes, colours and belief systems, and they’re not shallow idiots shopping and talking about their boyfriends.” Instead, they allow Kohan and company to explore big topics, such as the failure of the U.S. penal system – and to attract top talent, such as Jodie Foster, who approached Kohan about directing episode three in preparation for something she was working on for Showtime. (“When Jodie Foster wants to direct your show, you say yes,” Kohan says, laughing.)
Kohan knows her job is to entertain, not to reform. “But the prison industrial complex is totally effed-up and flawed and sinister, so why not get people talking about it?” she asks. “If I can start a conversation and good things happen because of it, that would be awesome.”