A stream­ing game-changer

How ‘Orange Is the New Black’ al­tered TV land­scape

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BOOKS - By Elaine Low

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.”

JES­SICA MIGLIO/NET­FLIX

Taylor Schilling stars in “Orange Is the New Black,” which pre­miered in 2013. The se­ries is wrap­ping up with a sev­enth sea­son.

ARTHUR MOLA/INVISION

“Orange Is the New Black” cre­ator Jenji Ko­han at the Sundance Film Fes­ti­val in Utah in 2015.

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