The Backstory behind “Orange is the New Black”

51Ce4GvkwWL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_With all the buzz about “Orange is the New Black”, I had fun chasing down facts about the memoir of that name by Piper Kerman after binge viewing the huge hit, “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix.  (See my last post for the review of the hit series).

In two separate interviews on NPR’s “All Things Considered”, Terry Gross interviews first Piper Kerman and then Jenji Kohan. It makes for fascinating listening!

To take a few examples:  In the memoir Kerman does not actually experience solitary confinement.  However, to show the desolation and dehumanizing boredom of prison,  Jenji Kohan has the fictionalized Piper spend time in the SHU (solitary confinement).  To show prison at its most extreme.  In addition, the ending of the series is not the same as in the memoir but leads dramatically to the promised second season, when Piper’s experiences will almost certainly deviate further from the memoir and create its own plot and momentum.

The actresses who played the key roles are also brilliantly discussed in NPR’s interview of Kohan.  The transgender actress, Laverne Cox, is seen in  flashback while a male.  But that was not possible with the actress’s female beauty.  Serendipitously, Cox  has a twin brother who played those scenes, unbeknownst to the producer and casting director at the time they cast Laverne.  Another actress (Uzo Aduba) who plays “Crazy Eyes” was not considered quite right for the role she was auditioning for, so Kohan created a new character because she was so impressed by Aduba’s performance.  That character became pivotal to the plot.

Enjoy listening to both NPR interviews!  I can’t wait until  Netflix’s second season, currently in production.

“Orange is the New Black”–Life Behind Bars

Orange is the New BlackThis is a caged beast financed and produced by Netflix: thirteen episodes available on Instant Queue for binge viewing if you are so inclined.

“Orange is the New Black” (filmed on location in a women’s prison in Chino, California) is loosely based on the 2010 memoir by Piper Kerman (now an advocate for women prison reform.)  Piper Chapman (phenomenal newcomer Taylor Schilling) is a privileged Smith College graduate sentenced to 14 months in prison for the crime of smuggling drugs ten years earlier.  Her former lover from that time, fellow drug smuggler Alex Vaus (the pitch-perfect Laura Prepon), is  sent to the same prison.

The question:  How does one survive in an institution that can kill your soul?  Piper is blond, blue-eyed, terrified, but also an outsider because of an upbringing far removed from the world of most of the other inmates, mainly women of color–young, middle-aged, and old–guilty of crimes undeserving of such long prison sentences. Trying to develop some sort of connection with them as well as with the prison guards, Chapman is determined to learn how to survive and, in the learning process, changes in ways both unexpected and welcomed. Her fiancé (Jason Biggs of “American Pie” fame), a journalist, also changes while separated from Piper.

Each of the thirteen episodes flashes on a different inmate’s backstory: her life before prison.  These women’s snapshots interweave with Piper, whose story is the main spine of “Orange is the New Black”.  Moments of comedy morph so fast into dramatic, painfully dark scenes the viewer feels whiplashed!  Each situation has more than one moral choice, and all choices are lose-lose.  And every single inmate has to give up something with unbelievably high stakes. There are narrative arcs and character development to surprise even the most attentive viewer. “Orange is the New Black” is story-telling at its finest.

Riveting, spellbinding, and infused with dilemmas at every turn, this new mini-series–written by the superlative Jenji Kohan of “Weeds”—is, I believe,  one of the very best ever produced for television at a time when there is a fast-growing bounty of high-quality programs.  The opening footage of faces –just eyes and foreheads, then mouths and chins–is like none seen in what Hollywood persuades us to believe human faces are supposed to be like. And the dialog is terse, mesmerizing, and vibrates with nuggets of truth you want to never fail to remember!