She worked on TVs biggest hits then revolutionised the way we all consume it with Orange Is the New Black. Jenji Kohan talks binge-watching, Love Island … and giving Joey VD

Deep into the new and final season of Orange Is the New Black, the groundbreaking Netflix show about life in a womens prison, a character slumps in front of her TV, engrossed in Love Island. I got obsessed with it, explains Jenji Kohan, the woman who has been at the helm of OITNB for the last six years. A friend who is British introduced it to my life last year, and I got unhealthily involved. And so she wrote it into her series, giving her obsession to one of the characters, where it appears in the background like a branded water bottle.

Kohan does very few interviews I chose to be a writer for a reason. I dont particularly want to be in front of the camera, so to speak but she is funny, dry-witted and very frank. So much so that she ends our conversation with a wistful: I hope I didnt say stupid things that will bite me in the ass later.

Seethed
I dont pull my punches the final season of Orange Is the New Black. Photograph: JoJo Whilden/Netflix

After seven seasons, Orange Is the New Black is bowing out. It is easy, in the age of peak content, when TV appears close to offering something for everyone, to forget how revolutionary it was when it first appeared in 2013. Kohan took a prison memoir by Piper Kerman and turned it into an ambitious comedy-drama about incarcerated women. It told us rich stories of poor women, rich women, straight women, gay women, trans women, black, white and Latino women. Its cast, unable to locate the mythical makeup store to which most TV prisoners seem to have secret access, were careful to look the part. The show seethed about injustice, but its comic touch meant it rarely, if ever, tipped into agitprop.

When it started, it was only the third series Netflix had ever made, after House of Cards and Hemlock Grove. Kohan had just finished working on Weeds, the suburbs-skewering show about a drug-dealing housewife that had been transformative in its own way, but HBO and Showtime both declined OITNB. I was pissed Showtime didnt pick it up, says Kohan. I had just given them eight years of a show. What do you mean, you wont do my next project? But Netflix greenlit a whole season, without the traditional testing ground of a pilot. God bless Netflix.

Will
Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, on which Kohan worked as a writer. Photograph: NBC via Getty Images

Streaming was in its infancy then, and the idea of Emmy nominations for anything you couldnt watch on an actual television was unimaginable. But Kohan swiftly realised that the real shift was the advent of binge-watching. I was, and remain, somewhat conflicted about that, she says. Although its completely hypocritical, because I indulge in it! She binge-watched Fleabag recently (She did a wonderful job its great), but she has always been motivated by the idea of bringing people together: When shows came out at the same time for everyone, they could make these connections. I mean, look what happened with Game of Thrones.

Even so, binge-watching is here to stay. I can lament the water-cooler conversation not happening, but you know, we cannot put the genie back in the bottle. Hang on: isnt OITNB, and therefore she, at least a little to blame? Im not taking personal responsibility! she protests. Its the streaming services fault.

Kohan, 50, grew up in Los Angeles. Her father, Buz, is a TV writer and producer of variety shows; her mother, Rhea, is a writer and actor, and her older brother, David, created Will & Grace. It seemed pre-ordained that Kohan would be a writer, too, but she has previously called her first job in the writers room of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in the early 90s a rough and fascinating entrance into the business. In 2016, she told a festival her nickname there had been white devil Jew bitch.

She spent the next few years moving from show to show. Name any of the most iconic series from the last three decades, and its likely Kohan wrote for it. She had stints on Gilmore Girls, Sex and the City and the first series of Friends. I gave them a lot of stuff. There was an episode I wrote that they put someone elses name on after my draft, which, fine, it was the politics of the time. What happened? It was the one where Joey was the poster child for VD, she says. Look, Id be much wealthier if Id stayed on Friends. Ultimately, I was very young, I talked a lot, maybe I said the wrong things, or didnt play well with others at that point. But you know, fuck them for firing me and taking a lot of stuff I did early on.

Matt
I was very young when I worked on Friends, and maybe I said the wrong things Matt LeBlanc as Joey in the first season.

When Showtime picked up Weeds in 2005, Kohan was more than ready to be the master of her own ideas. Showtime trusted her to be a showrunner where others hadnt given her the chance, though she took a pay cut to work there, moving from network to cable TV. I was trading money for freedom. I was making a whole lot more money in network, but was very unhappy creatively. I was like, all right, pay me like shit, but I will not compromise because this is my shot. Weeds was a hit, but she had to fight for it all the way.

Kohan has spoken before about how ahead of its time Weeds was. I dont want to sound sour grapes, she says, but you know, we were before Breaking Bad, and we had a very early female antihero [Mary-Louise Parker]. Weeds dark humour pushed the boundaries; Kohan has a strong libertarian streak, particularly when it comes to humour. Is it a difficult time to make jokes? Theres an earnestness that has infiltrated that does step on comedys toes, she reasons. Everyones out to get you if you say something untoward, and that waters down everything. Its difficult because of the sensitivity that demands to be catered to. People need to toughen up a bit.

Mary-Louise
Pushing boundaries Kohans show Weeds, with Mary-Louise Parker. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Sky One

The final season of OITNB weaves in storylines centred on female genital mutilation, post-traumatic stress disorder and outrageous immigration policies, finding comedy as well as drama in all of it. Theres a #MeToo storyline, though typically, Kohans thoughtfully contrary approach points our sympathies in unexpected directions. Its sensibilities never appear to have been watered down. I dont pull my punches. There are enough points of view in that show that if youre offended by something, youll like something else. She grows more animated. Im not responsible for other people being offended. Its a TV show shut it off.

One of Kohans most notorious storylines involved her killing off the eminently popular Poussey, in a scenario that had echoes of the case of Eric Garner, the black American choked to death by a policeman. Pousseys death remains the most upsetting moment in OITNBs history, and fans were outraged. Youve spent so many hours consecutively with these people, in your home, near your body, like, theyre in you, she says. Its gotten so intimate and all-consuming that when things happen, people take it really personally. I ask if the backlash surprised her. No! I mean were provocateurs, to a certain extent. I want people to have reactions. I want people to talk about things they like and dont like and feel outraged by and feel comforted by.

Its
Im not responsible for other people being offended … Kohan on the fan outrage over Pousseys death. Photograph: JoJo Whilden/Netflix

When OITNB started, Kohan called its lead, Piper Chapman, the shows Trojan horse. She was a wealthy, white woman who found herself incarcerated for a historical drug-related crime, an easy access point, Kohan said, for the stories of the other women in prison. Would she need a Trojan horse now? Probably not as much, she says. Television is becoming more naturalistic in how it represents the world. She will accept that OITNB should get some credit for that, but also nods to Greys Anatomy and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes, for her casts that, in a very natural way, presented all sorts of people.

Although Kohan is meant to be resting after wrapping OITNB, she has instead been working on Glow, the show about female wrestlers in the 80s, and the forthcoming and brilliantly named Slutty Teenage Bounty Hunters. Her production company has given her a new role: Im Mary Poppins. Im taking care of other peoples children. I am supervising and ushering and godmothering a lot of projects that I find really fun, helmed by people I think are great.

She recognises that television now is very different to when OITNB began, and she is frustrated by the current vogue for grimness. Im fucking done with darkness and dystopia. I think its bad for us at this point. I want to see more reflections of lives we would like to live and worlds we would like to see. The dark is getting me down. Partly, she says, thats why OITNB had to come to an end. When youre writing a show in prison, youre psychologically in prison for a good deal of time. It was time for release.

Even so, she says it has been very hard to let go. She misses the characters already. Id like to think that in some alternate universe they go on, that the stories continue. Theres probably some fan fiction online that caters to that. And probably some excellent erotic fiction, she says and laughs. But I have not gone down that rabbit hole. It was bad enough with Love Island.

  • The final season of Orange Is the New Black is on Netflix now.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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