With a resume that includes writing stints on modern classics like Sex and the City, Gilmore Girls, and Tracey Takes On, not to mention of course her eight year run as showrunner of Showtime's Weeds, Jenji Kohan has spent years cultivating a career on the fact that women don't have to be seen as merely pretty faces, girlfriends or assistants-- on-screen or behind-the-scenes. Kohan claims she never set out with the agenda to focus solely on female-driven stories, but her next project, the adapted Orange is the New Black for Netflix, seems the absolute perfect next step in the evolution of such a voice and artist.
"I don’t set out to write female lead shows necessarily. I like characters. I like deeply flawed characters. And when they come to me or when I’m introduced to them, I follow the stories, and I follow the people, more than setting out to do a “female lead thing.” You know, Weeds was a one-line pitch: ‘suburban widow, drug-dealing mom,’ and I was like, ‘This is something good’. And when I read Piper’s book, I immediately thought this is a way into a really interesting world," Kohan said during the Los Angeles Orange is the New Black press junket.
Based on Piper Kerman's autobiographical book of the same name, Orange is the New Black follows an upper middle class woman as she turns herself in for her part in a drug ring a decade earlier. She is sentenced to a year in a minimum security prison, and the story explodes from there as she has to acclimate to her new surroundings, adjust to those from very different walks of life, and find herself in the process.
"It’s kind of the yuppie’s eye view to get you in there because if you go to a network and say, ‘I want do to prison stories about Latina women and black women and old women’, you’re not going to make a sale. But if you’ve got this blonde girl going into prison you can kind of get in there and then you can tell all of the stories. I just thought it was kind of a great gateway drug to get into all of the stories I wanted to get into," Kohan said.
Some of the stories that Kohan gets to offer her take on with Orange is the New Black are relationship concerns, sexuality, race relations, religion, and gender identification. But she's not shoving an agenda down anyone's throat, instead focusing to showcase how so many of these "issues" manifest themselves within personalities, creating exceptionally unique and colorful characters.
Kohan refuses to paint anyone with a stereotypical brush, even though many of the characters judge each other that way. She allows her audience to see the deep layers behind people's exteriors and places they've carved out for themselves by spending alone time with them and going home with them, so to speak, through flashbacks to their lives before prison. It's just another way her female characters are as fully-formed and fleshed out as humanly possible.
"We fell in love with different people; there was sort of a flavor of the week sometimes…We got invested and we really wanted to do the flashbacks, partially because we wanted to explore who these women were on the outside versus the inside and get a fuller picture of the masks they wear, but also this was our lives for a good part of the year, and we did not want to be in prison 24/7. It was too oppressive, so how could we get out? Let’s see their lives a little bit!" Kohan said.
"They’re not shopping, and they’re not talking about the guys they’re fucking; they’re full people, and yeah, they’re incarcerated. It’s also hard to find these crossroads where you can bring in all these different groups and have them all in the same place, and I’m always looking for those…where you can put all these diverse people together and see how they respond to one another."
Though the topics Kohan chooses to explore in her writing seem heavy when seeing them listed in print, she never writes strictly from the dramatic side of things which saves her sanity as a writer but also keeps the audiences' intact, too.
"I think that shows that are completely dramatic are a lie because people use humor to cope. That is how we deal with things. In the darkest situations, there is humor. And if you don’t show that, you’re not being true to real life. I think it would be exhausting and depressing to write, to watch, and to live if it was just focused on drama. Also, I think the humor really highlights the pathos and the struggle, and you can slam it up against drama, and it makes both shine…I think it reflects reality; I think people use humor to survive the most horrific situations," Kohan said.
Since this was a project obviously not born from Kohan's own mind, though, there was a slight added challenge-- or at least an extra step-- in selling the idea. She first had to sell herself to Kerman as the writer before even bringing the concept to any network that might consider airing it. But by just being herself and letting her strong point of view and personality shine through, she obviously got Kerman's blessing. While most people would walk into such a meeting and list their impressive credentials, Kohan engaged with the content, knowing even subconsciously that her resume is readily Googleable but what gets pitches bought in the room is the passion shown behind them.
"She came in and I was supposed to sell myself and tell her why I should do this, and instead the entire time I was like, ‘Well, what happened to this character?’ and ‘Do you still know her?’ and ‘What are the toilets like?’ but apparently because I had all of these questions and I was enthusiastic, that’s what made her say yes to me. Because other people were like ‘I’ve done this and this’, and I didn’t even get to that because I was mostly interested in the narrative, and we just got along, and it’s an amazing story," Kohan said.
In a way, Orange is the New Black could be seen as the story Weeds opted not to tell by skipping ahead in time and the story after Nancy Botwin turned herself in. Kohan had more freedom at Showtime to tell dark and sexy stories without the concern of network censors' breathing down her neck, but even she couldn't deny that Netflix is a whole new world (or the "wild, wild west," as she literally put it) when it comes to allowing the creators to have creative freedom and therefore tell the story the best way for the realism of the story.
"I want to be there first. It’s the next frontier; it’s how my kids are watching TV; it’s how I’m watching TV. I remember how one of my writers on Weeds had gotten a new apartment and didn’t get cable and didn’t get a DISH, just hooked his computer up to a TV, and immediately it was like, ‘Okay, this is it; this is how it’s happening’. And to be able to be there first, I love the pioneer thing. It’s exciting to me. And you know, they pay full freight; they’re really nice; they support the work; what could be bad?" Kohan said.
Needless to say, Kohan would be up for keeping her partnership with Netflix as long-term as her previous one with Weeds-- but only if the story called for it. Thankfully she is not a writer who is just trying to stretch and milk for monetary gain but instead to honor the story and not only how it should be told but also for how long it should be told.
"I could stretch this shit for years! There's no question! We looked at the end of the first season, and I think we covered about four months. I could keep going; I could go off with other characters; I have no problem, we could go ten seasons with this as long as there are still interesting stories and interesting people we want to meet, I could keep going," Kohan said.
"But we all have to be invested. If the room starts getting bored, or I [do], then we either have to change something in the show or maybe end it. I like the challenge of ‘How can we stretch this out and where can we go with it?’ because it’s an open road, especially at Netflix; you can take it anywhere you want."