From its title, “Orange Is the New Black” sounds like a hot new TLC reality program that urges viewers to “say yes to the jumpsuit.” Lucky for the highbrow television viewer, its title is more than a little deceiving.
Netflix rolled out all 13 episodes of the show’s excellent first season from Jenji Kohan, the creator of Weeds, back in July. Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, the series focuses on a woman imprisoned for transporting drug money 10 years after the crime was committed. Set in a women’s correctional facility, “Orange” postures itself as a refreshing alternative in an industry dominated by male protagonists — particularly among prison dramas.
Netflix has been credited with giving its showrunners almost total creative control, including the freedom to lace episodes with as many profanities and exposed bodies as they wish. Although “Orange” can often give Judd Apatow films a crass run for their money, granting the opportunity to craft a show this diverse and female-driven was a far riskier enterprise for Netflix. Given the adjusted parameters for success on a streaming service relative to network or even cable channels, Netflix was able to take a chance on Kohan’s daring content in a way that more viewer-conscious providers would be unable to do.
Last Tuesday night, one of the show’s writers, Pittsburgh native Lauren Morelli, spoke at Bellefield Hall about growing up on the North Shore, her time studying dance in college and how she decided to pursue television writing. Morelli also touched on the show’s empowering nature, which makes it unlike anything else on television or the Internet right now.
Morelli recalled being on set for a massive rap-battle sequence in the prison. “We literally had 100 women on set. Taylor (Schilling) leaned in to me during the scene and she said ‘Have you ever seen this many women on screen?’ That’s when I knew we were doing something special.”
Aside from the show’s primarily female cast, it also features an abundance of women working behind the scenes. Morelli noted that the show’s writing room is comprised of “five women and two men, which is inverted from most writing rooms.”
Morelli’s statements couldn’t be more accurate. A 2012 report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that women held 28 percent of the behind-the-scenes roles on network, cable and pay cable programs. Though the figure may seem relatively low, it’s on par with the historical high set in 2007-2008.
Take nearly any critically-lauded drama (or comedy) on television at the moment — be it “Homeland,” “Mad Men” or “Veep” — and you will find strong and sometimes central female characters in each program. But in almost every case, they work in tandem with or are overshadowed by their male counterparts.
With “Orange,” Netflix allowed Kohan to unequivocally ignore the industry statistics. Female characters don’t just have featured arcs for an episode or two — they own the series. Male correctional officers still hold the power in the prison, but they are often relegated to the periphery in the plot. Even Piper’s fiance Larry becomes a distant and sometimes absent figure in the series, despite his role as Piper’s emotional anchor to life outside of prison.
In addition to providing showrunners with the opportunity to tell daring stories, part of the Netflix appeal is in giving viewers the freedom to consume content at any pace they desire. Although some creative minds, such as “Arrested Development” creator Mitch Hurwitz, have condemned all-too-common “binge viewing” marathon sessions on program-streaming services, this practice has undeniably changed the way most of us watch TV.
Debates can be waged about whether the binge culture marks the cataclysmic end to serialized television as we know it, removing viewers from the organic break between episodes. But if Netflix continues to produce series as strong and addictive as “Orange,” it shouldn’t matter if audiences rip through a season in an afternoon or a month.
Morelli thoroughly embraces the format and even goes so far as to suggest a rebranding.
“We’re basically writing a 13-hour movie,” she said.