A streaming game-changer
How ‘Orange Is the New Black’ altered TV landscape
Before “Netflix and chill” entered the cultural lexicon, before the streaming platform won its first Emmy, before it started inking deals with major showrunners, Netflix in the early 2010s was testing out a hypothesis about the public’s appetite for premium-quality television shows on the internet.
It had recently recovered from the Qwikster debacle — an aborted plan to spin off its DVD-by-mail business — and gritted its teeth through a tomato-pelting over a subscription price hike. Now Netflix was challenging network incumbents with its inaugural slate of first-run originals, including “House of Cards,” horror series “Hemlock Grove” and the revival of cult favorite “Arrested Development.” Also in the works was a less high-profile show from “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan, based on a memoir about a motley collective of women incarcerated in a minimum-security prison. With no point of reference for what a highly produced online-only TV show would look like, the cast of that series, a diverse group of mostly unknowns, didn’t know whether “Orange Is the New Black” would become a hit or something that dissolved into the cyber-ether. Few guessed the show would become Netflix’s most-watched original series of all time.
“When we were making ‘Orange’ (in 2012), it wasn’t like ‘House of Cards’ was actually on television for us to be like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be that,’ ” says Uzo Aduba, aka Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on the show. “It’s like, ‘Is it a web series? Is it going to be on YouTube? I don’t really get what this is.’ Additionally, the makeup of our show wasn’t something that was all over the television landscape.”
Years later, Kohan’s beloved series is now entering its seventh and final season, and boasts 20 Emmy nominations, four wins and the rare Netflixprovided statistic that around 105 million users have watched at least one episode. The show was, in retrospect, not just a signal that a group of diverse women could harness Hollywood clout and acclaim, but a major factor in cementing Netflix’s aggressive originals growth strategy.
The end of “Orange” punctuates the end of an era for the streaming network: A question mark has become an exclamation point. With almost every major player in town invested in online originals, all eyes are on what comes next from Netflix as the streaming entertainment market goes into overdrive.
Never mind that Netflix wasn’t a traditional TV network: In seeking a home for “Orange,” Kohan remembers loving the streamer’s “all-in” straightto-series model that bypassed the fatigue of pilot development.
“Here was a network that was willing to buy an entire season at once and fund it and support it,” says Kohan. “There was nothing better in my mind. I had gone through years and years of pilots, and (for them) to say, ‘We’re going to support your vision through a whole season’ was an amazing opportunity. It had a real budget and a team that was really into it, so I wasn’t thinking in terms of ‘No one will see it’ or ‘It’ll only be on the web’ or whatever. It’s like, ‘I get to make this.’ ”
Kohan’s bona fides as a writer and showrunner were clear, and the stories themselves were a meaty mix of comedy and tragedy that passed the Bechdel test a thousandfold, giving voice to female characters hardly found on TV. For those uncertain about the show back then, it was Netflix that raised eyebrows.
Nevertheless, 45-year acting vet Kate Mulgrew, who plays Litchfield inmate Red, prophesied the series’ starry destiny.
“I can sniff a winning pony,” she says. “Even though they gave me a very slender audition piece, I understood immediately that Netflix was going to do something very bold, and that working in concert with Jenji Kohan, it was going to (create) an absolute horse race in terms of the true advent of the golden age of television.”
Referring to Netflix’s vice president for original content, Mulgrew adds: “But you must have a visionary like Cindy Holland. She saw; she understood.”
“We were intentional about wanting to change the perception of what internet content was,” says Holland.
Kohan’s series traces back to “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” the 2010 memoir from Piper Kerman. Kerman remembers Kohan being different from other industry folks who had pitched their visions to her.
Kohan is an “insatiably curious person,” says Kerman.
“She’s interested in the truth of the experience, but also, like, whether there’s cheese,” says Kerman. (To that point: In prison there is “rubbery, orange government cheese.”) “That was before we knew what Netflix was going to be, so really, I entrusted that story to the creative person.”
For her part, Holland affectionately calls “Orange” the “little engine that could.”
Kohan has said before that the character of Piper Chapman, the white yuppie turned jailbird played by Taylor Schilling, served as a Trojan horse to introduce stories about Latinas, black women, older women and women of different socioeconomic classes.
“I’m super, super proud of what we did with ‘Orange,’ ” says Kohan. “I’m super proud to say that we presented all sorts of women, all sorts of minorities, and not just one, but different people within the minority.”
For Aduba, who would become the first actress to take home Emmys in both the comedy and drama categories for the same role, “Orange” was the first TV job she ever booked.
“It was something that, up until then, I didn’t actively pursue, because I had never seen a space for myself there existent in it,” she says of television. She auditioned after “Orange” casting director Jennifer Euston saw her in a play in New York.
“I don’t even know if people at the time knew what they were thirsty for, but when we gave them that to drink, it was consumed so quickly, because it was like, ‘Yes, that is what I’ve been looking for,’ ” she says.
As for Kohan’s next personal project as a showrunner? She’s not sure.
“It’s been a big year of endings,” says Kohan. “I got divorced, ‘Orange’ ended, two out of three of my kids are going or are away in college. I’m hoping all this transition and turmoil leads to some really interesting writing.”
Taylor Schilling stars in “Orange Is the New Black,” which premiered in 2013. The series is wrapping up with a seventh season.
“Orange Is the New Black” creator Jenji Kohan at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in 2015.