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."
Kerman agrees. "They say upfront that rehabilitation is not their priority, but it really, really is not," she says. "There's nothing in serving a prison sentence that creates change in people's lives. It's just about immobilizing them – both physically, and freezing them in time. It doesn't allow them to change. It doesn't prepare them to change when they go home. It's a colossal waste."
The series also addresses head-on two of America's most taboo subjects, race and class. When Chapman realizes that prisoners voluntarily group themselves by skin colour, her PC tut-tutting is played for laughs. "It's not racist," someone tells her. "It's tribal." But the underlying idea is deadly serious. "I lived with so many women doing so much more time than me – five, seven, 10 years," Kerman says. "As I grew to know them, it was impossible to believe their offences were so different from mine. I mean, really, they were all criminal masterminds? No. There were other factors – class, skin colour and access to counsel."
As well – because it is a women's prison, after all – Kohan delves merrily into another of her favourite topics: sex. "I think there needs to be more [fornicating] on television," she says, laughing. "I like writing sex, I like watching sex, I like having sex. So much of life is motivated by it. Sex is everything: It's tension release, it's humour, it's closeness, it's base. Why is a woman's truth not reflected more on television and in movies? Let's talk about it."
Certainly Kohan's previous series, Weeds – about a suddenly widowed suburban mom (Mary Louise Parker) who becomes a pot dealer to make ends meet – expanded the horizons of TV sex. In one memorable scene, Parker is watching old home videos when she stumbles across a sex tape she and her late husband made; she starts crying, then begins to masturbate. It was an electrifying moment for me as a viewer, one of the most delicately calibrated, multilayered scenes I'd ever seen, on TV or anywhere. Orange offers its own startling moments of intimacy – sometimes lusty (smasharoonie shower sex early in episode one), sometimes lonely, and sometimes laugh-out-loud, like the reference to a lover so ardent that her right forearm is much bigger than her left, or the joke about how the inmates steal the cucumbers out of the kitchen before the chef (a terrific Kate Mulgrew) can cook with them.
"It's really interesting portraying a lesbian, I've never played one before," says Prepon, a woman so tall, curvy and rowdy that mere adjectives don't do justice, with a booming voice and an even bigger laugh. "Before this I'd only done these scenes with a man, and I'm straight, so I don't have any reality on having a love scene with a woman. But doing ours made me realize that woman, man, it doesn't matter – if there's chemistry, there's chemistry."
Because Prepon plays the dominant character, she took the lead in trying to make Schilling feel comfortable in their frequent nude scenes.
"I would always tell her where my hands were going to be," Prepon says. "'Girl, I'm going to touch your thigh, then your chest.' Pretty soon [Schilling] was like, 'I don't care where your hands are going to be, I trust you, touch me wherever the hell you want.'" Prepon's laugh ricochets down the hallway.
Still, for all its veracity, the prison in Orange is more character study than horror show. As one of the characters states, "This isn't Oz." During her research, Kohan interviewed a warden who'd worked at both men's and women's facilities, and asked him what the biggest difference was. "He said, 'In men's prisons it's every man for himself. In women's prisons it's communal,'" she remembers.
"What you expect is that the worst thing about prison will be the other prisoners, and that was very far from my experience," Kerman confirms. "It was actually my relationships that sustained me." She traded commissary chits for a biweekly pedicure – "that defiant act of taking care of yourself, and also being taken care of, it's hard to believe how much that meant to me" – and still keeps in touch via social media with some of her former inmates (though a few are already back in prison for new offences).
Each episode of Orange digs into these notions of empathy and community, offering a glimpse into the back-story of a different prisoner, while the relationship of Chapman and Alex continues to unfurl. "[Kohan] and I always say that Alex is the spider and Piper's the fly, but there's so much more to her than that," Prepon says. "Yeah, she's a tough chick who's obsessed with power, but she's also truly vulnerable, as well as wily and so funny, and she sees everything. It's so cool to be able to play all these different things."
It's a good fit for Prepon, who spent her childhood as a tall redhead wishing she looked more "normal." At her audition for That '70s Show, she was supposed to go in before the girl next to her, "this beautiful blonde half my size in a little cheerleader outfit," Prepon remembers. Prepon, on the other hand, was wearing camo pants, flip-flops, a ripped T-shirt, and no makeup, "because that's how I walked around. I didn't know what it was to get a pilot, I didn't know anything." But the show's co-creator, Bonnie Turner, saw something in her, and asked the blonde to read first. Later Turner told Prepon, "I wanted everyone to see what they thought they wanted, and then introduce you – who we really wanted."
"Now I love that I'm different and don't look like your typical whatever," Prepon continues, "and on Orange, every character is like that. It's this mosh pit of women. Even Taylor, you think she's a cookie-cutter girl, but as you get her into this Lord of the Flies scenario, you start to see, no, she's just as manipulative and messed up as anyone else. The show really exploits all that stuff, and it's so cool."
Maybe one reason it works is that Kohan knows a little something about putting in your time. Despite their showbiz careers, her parents discouraged their children from following in their footsteps. "We were supposed to be doctors, lawyers, something stable," Kohan says. But she got the writing gene.
"Ultimately, though, it's about doing the work, about putting your head down and grinding it out," Kohan says. "I wrote all the time. Weeds was my 15th pilot. Hearing 'no' only fuels my fire. Even as a kid, I loved the motivation of, 'I'll prove you wrong.' It's bitten me in the ass a lot.
But it's enabled me to maintain my vision."
Which is, that black comedy comes in all colours.