Netflix released the entire second season of its original hit series Orange Is the New Black this week much to the delight of binge streaming citizens the world over. The series, created by Jenji Kohan, is based on truth with a twist. The show is no fairy tale as it explores the lives of a diverse group of female prison inmates coming to terms with incarceration.
Kohan told NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross that she pitched the show to HBO, Showtime, and Netflix and that the digital streaming giant signed up for 13 episodes of Orange Is the New Black without seeing a pilot. Perhaps it was swayed by the wild success of Weeds that aired on rival Showtime and which was also created by Kohan.
Kohan conceived of OITNB after reading the real-life memoir of Piper Kerman, a graduate of Smith College who spent 13 months in the clink for helping launder money in 1993. According to her memoir, she had met “an impossibly stylish” lesbian who ran drugs for an African kingpin. After their involvement, Kerman turned over a new leaf and moved to San Francisco where she met and fell in love with Larry Smith, the Larry of OITNB.
Kerman, whose show character is named Piper Chapman, and Smith moved to New York where she was eventually charged with her crimes and sent to prison. Michael Humphrey, writing for New York Magazine points out that Kerman’s literacy and the couple’s ability to work publicity are what made her story stand out from the other 50,000 prisoners who, in 2004, entered into federal jurisdiction. Kernan told Humphrey that she is concerned that the oddity of her story will overshadow the message that the prison system is “so much about wasted time and wasted opportunities.”
The Netflix hit pivots around the romantic relationship between Piper Chapman and Alex Vause. Steamy lesbian shower scenes and a series of emotional entanglements show a complicated, toxic, and passionate relationship between the two characters. Catherine Cleary Wolters, the real-life woman on whom Alex’s character is based, considers Kernan to have “balls the size of Oklahoma” to be able to tell her story, but she reported to Vanity Fair that it is strange for her to watch abstractions of her life on screen.
Wolters says that, in fact, she and Kernan were not intimate until after they had done their heroin-related trafficking and that they never had sex in prison. According to Wolters, their time in the same prison overlapped by only five weeks in Chicago while they were both called to testify against alleged Nigerian drug kingpin Buruji Kashamu.
Laura Prepon originally read for the part of Piper Chapman but Kohan wanted to cast her as Alex, the character based on Wolters. Prepon is not without scandal, albeit fabricated. The woman who played the ginger Donna Pinciotti on That ’70s Show has received some media attention of late for her membership in the Church of Scientology. Rumors, which she firmly denies, have surfaced that Prepon is romantically involved with Tom Cruise.
Other rumors have surfaced that because of her relationship to Scientology she would not be returning to Season Two to play the role of steamy lesbian love interest and moral balance to Piper Chapman. Prepon denies those rumors as well, telling The Daily Beast that professional commitments are the reason she appears in only four episodes of season two. Prepon has cleared her schedule in case Kohan and Netflix decide on a third season.
“I’m always looking for those places where you can slam really disparate people up against one another, and they have to deal with each other,” Kohan told Fresh Air’s Gross. “There are very few crossroads anymore. We talk about this country as this big melting pot, but it’s a mosaic. There’s all these pieces, they’re next to each other, they’re not necessarily mixing,” Kohan said. “I’m looking for those spaces where people actually do mix — and prison just happens to be a terrific one,” Kohan told the NPR host.
Kohan has won numerous awards for her production, writing, and series’creation. Her credits include Tracey Takes On…, starring Tracey Ullman, Sex in the City, Gilmore Girls, Will & Grace, and of course, Weeds and OITNB. In January of this year, Orange Is the New Black won the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Streaming Series
A subculture has popped up around the OITNB; directions for a drinking game for binge watchers appeared online at SugarPop this week in anticipation of the binge watching pilgrimmage to Netflix. Fans appreciate the fact that Netflix releases all episodes of its original series at one time, and Orange Is the New Black is one of their favorites.
By Kaley Perkins