In 2004, Piper Kerman, a woman from a wealthy Boston family, served 13 months of a 15-month prison sentence for drug-trafficking and money-laundering offences. In 2010, she turned that experience into a bestselling memoir, Orange Is The New Black: My Year In A Women's Prison, which told stories of life on the inside and attempted to put a human face to the 2.4 million people currently incarcerated in the United States.
"I thought that if I was successful at what I wanted to achieve," she explains, over a coffee near her home in Brooklyn, "then people would come away from the book thinking differently about who was in prison and why they were there, and what really happens in there."
She could not have imagined just how successful she would be. In June 2013, the streaming service Netflix unveiled the series Orange Is The New Black, an oddball, 13-episode comedy-drama loosely based on Kerman's story. It already had two high-profile shows in its stable: House Of Cards, the campy political thriller starring award magnets Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and the rebooted sitcom Arrested Development. But at the end of the year, Netflix, usually tightlipped about its viewing figures, revealed that Orange Is The New Black was its most popular original show. The underdog had become a sensation.
Kerman, who acts as a consultant on Orange (everyone on the show uses the shorthand name), and is a prominent advocate for penal reform, says she knew early on that she wanted her story to be told on TV. "Even the best, best bestselling book only reaches a fraction of the people that filmed entertainment reaches," she says. Plus, she goes on, television is longer and goes deeper. "Film is reductive to a single protagonist, but a series allows you a degree of latitude. What was interesting about my story was not my story solely, but the fact that it interlays with all these others."
The drama initially centres on a fictional version of Kerman, Piper Chapman. She's played with impressive range by Taylor Schilling, who runs the gamut from wide-eyed terror to steely self-preservation. In the Litchfield Penitentiary, where Chapman serves her sentence, she does battle with petty bureaucracy, abusive guards, fundamentalist bigots, the etiquette of prison's micro-society, defective tumble-dryers and the hunt for a mythical chicken that may or may not represent hope and freedom for her fellow inmates.
Though the chicken is TV fantasy, Kerman says a surprising amount of the show is rooted in the truth. "I met the warden of a very large women's prison in the midwest, and she said, 'Oh, we love the show.' And I said, 'Really?' And she said, 'Oh yeah: we have a [born-again Christian] Pennsatucky, we have a [Chapman's would-be prison wife] Crazy Eyes. My response to this warden was, 'Of course you have a Pornstache, then,'" referring to the magnificently moustached corrupt guard (played by The Wire's Pablo Schreiber) who brings drugs into the prison and has sex with the inmates.
"When you talk about something like the criminal justice system in America, there are inherently political strands," Kerman continues. "Race drives incarceration, and people are disproportionately punished based on their social situation, so it would be impossible to have a show about prison and not touch on political questions. But it goes back to the intimacy of a series; you invest yourself in those characters and the fact that you really care about them and what happens to them and why, that raises questions."
The show is now entering its second season, and while it covers plenty of new ground – a fresh arrival and wannabe top dog, Vee, sets about dividing up the prison along racial lines, and we get the backstories (the show loves a flashback) of online fraudster Morello and Poussey, a sharp-tongued wise-cracker previously used more as a comic foil – it's the central romance between Chapman and her former criminal cohort Alex Vause that has many fans hooked. The pair's destructive, co-dependent love story drives much of the first season, and is the catalyst for a huge shocker at the start of the second.
Laura Prepon, who plays Vause, explains its appeal over the phone. "It's a rocky relationship, it's very tumultuous, but I think the reason fans love it so much is because it's a true love they have for each other, but they just keep fucking it up. [Alex] is a straight-shooter, she doesn't mince her words, but she's also a truthful, vulnerable person. Piper really is the love of her life, and you see her hurt and vulnerable when she's dealing with love."
Plus, of course, Vause has got attitude. "She's a total badass," agrees Prepon, who suddenly begins to shout. "Oh my God, there's all these girls running by the car right now," she shouts. "They're really running! This is crazy. There are girls surrounding the car!"
Prepon has her theories about why Orange has caused such a fuss. "You never see a show with this many strong independent women on TV, and audiences want that. They're hungry for that, and it's pretty incredible." In many ways, its success can be seen as a defiant middle finger to traditional television models. Showrunner Jenji Kohan, who also created Weeds, took Orange to various cable executives; they all passed, leaving Netflix to take the chance. "Nothing is taboo for Jenji," says Prepon. "We're just trying to tell these stories in an authentic, honest way, about these women who are stripped of their creature comforts and are thrown into this environment where it's not about the makeup and the wardrobe and the hair. It's about what these women are dealing with."
In August 2013, two months after Orange first appeared, BuzzFeed reported that Prepon was leaving the show. It caused a stink: some sites even speculated that Prepon's Scientology beliefs meant she was no longer comfortable playing a lesbian, a point she has always denied. Eventually, it was announced that she would be back for one episode, and then for four. "Because of a scheduling conflict, I wasn't able to be in the whole season, but I did as many as I could," she says now. Netflix, being relatively new to the series game, doesn't have six-year contracts in the way that traditional television does, though that "has changed a little bit" according to Prepon. "We're like pioneers of this new frontier, in terms of a place like Netflix making its own shows. It's a learning curve for all of us … But we already handled that, so I can be in every episode of season three." She will be filming it by the time season two appears online.
Jenji Kohan has spoken in the past about using the character of Chapman, a white, wealthy blonde woman, as her "Trojan horse", a way of telling stories that might not ordinarily be heard. Kerman thinks this says more about the entertainment business than it does about what viewers actually want, however. "Jenji said she couldn't go to a major media company and say, 'I want to make a show about a wide mosaic of women of all ages and races, and they're going to be poor…' Viewers are more receptive to a huge amount of different stories than perhaps media executives give them credit for."
As we talk, Kerman suddenly spots a familiar face: "Oh, my husband just walked in!" The real Larry, played by Jason Biggs in the show and much derided by fans online, comes over and gives the real Piper a kiss. I ask Larry what he thinks of TV Larry. "He's not nearly as hot," he jokes. "I appreciate my friend's teenage daughter saying, 'Dude, you're much cooler than that guy on TV.' It's just a kick, you know?"
For Kerman, whose fictional self takes up a lot more screentime, there is a lot more to consider. "I think she's a really well-done character," she says, laughing. "Sometimes I watch between my fingers: 'Oh no, don't do that!' I made plenty of mistakes when I was incarcerated. They don't mirror her choices, but her choices are very believable and as a human being, to be in this situation, which is scary and unfamiliar, you cling rather desperately to the things that make you feel better, even though they might not be the best thing for you." And with that, she nails the appeal of the show: "Any of us can relate to that, right?"
The whole of season two of Orange Is The New Black is on Netflix now
Have you finished Season 2 yet, ONTD?