Orange Is The New Black may masquerade as a fish-out-of-water drama, but it also acts as a much-needed celebration of diversity, its stars tell Ed Power.
IT’S A punishingly humid day in Berlin and in an opulent hotel at Potsdamer Platz the stars of Orange Is the New Black are appropriately hot and bothered.
“Donald Trump is not one step from the White House,” says Lea DeLaria, aka the Netflix hit’s resident ‘butch lesbian’ Carrie ‘Big Boo’ Black.
“If Trump is one step from the White House then so is Spongebob Squarepants,” she responds to a question about the rise of Trump and what it says about America. It has been suggested that, in an age in which a hate-spewer such as ‘The Donald’ is a plausible political force, and following the massacre in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Orange Is The New Black’s message of tolerance matters more than ever.
The show celebrates difference, with a racially and sexually diverse cast of the sort rarely seen on the small screen. Simply by existing, Orange Is The New Black gives us hope in the face of Trump’s fear- mongering.
“The atmosphere has been sensationalised by the America media,” says DeLaria. “You’re not getting the actual facts. In no way does America elect Trump. Less than 40 per cent of the Republican voters turned up for the primaries. The people voting for him are the lunatic fringe. The lunatic fringe is not going to win the presidency.”
The rise of Trump will be obliquely referenced in season four of the acclaimed women’s prison drama, hints Uzo Aduba, who plays Litchfield Penitentiary’s resident emotionally unstable time bomb, Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren. With so much social and racial polarisation in America, it was inevitable that some of that division would drip into the marrow of the show. Show-runner and creator Jenji Kohan has a rare facility for taking the temperature of America and reflecting it on the screen says Aduba.
“Audiences watching this season will have a hard time believing it was shot a year ago and written a year and a half ago,” she says. “Jenji has this innate ability to write not what about we are talking about now but what we will be talking about. The seasons have always been very current, whether that be the conversation about transgender or whatever. This time will be no different.”
There will be a further three seasons after the current series, which is now available on Netflix. Yet none of the cast has the vaguest intimation where it is all leading. That’s a secret Kohan keeps to herself.
“We going to be starting shooting the new series soon,” says Aduba. “I have no idea what is going to be happening. The first I know is when I get the script. It’s a mystery to us as all.”
Orange Is The New Black is loosely adapted from a prison memoir of the same name. Piper Kerman was a middle class college graduate convicted years after the fact of money laundering and drug trafficking. In the early 1990s she had agreed to help a lover and heroin trafficker smuggle cash across the Atlantic. A decade later, when she had moved on and was married in San Fransisco, Kerman was jailed for her crimes and sentenced for 15 months.
This intriguing story has served as a springboard for Kohan’s compelling mix of comedy and drama. Kerman has become Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), happily married and living in suburban New York only for her previous life as a drug trafficker to return to haunt her.
However, the series isn’t especially interested in Chapman’s predicament. Rather, her incarceration is our gateway into the alternative universe that is the American penitentiary system.
Week by week we are introduced to cast of protagonists, by turns diverse, needy, hateful and harming. Kohan has described Piper as her Trojan Horse: viewers think they are getting a fish out of water morality tale but Orange is the New Black conspires to serve up something very different.
The show probably wouldn’t have existed in the era before streaming television. It is difficult to picture even self-consciously edgy networks such as HBO or Showtime green-lighting a prison-set comedy soap without recognisable stars and a dramatis personae of damaged and delinquent women.
Orange Is The New Black isn’t without its preachy moments — if you consider being respectful to minorities preachy — but the sermonising is leavened with wit and snappy writing. At no point does it feel the viewer is being browbeaten with a moral.
“You’re not waggling the finger,” says Yael Stone, an Australian who affects a remarkable Brooklyn accent as delusional inmate Lorna Morello.
“You get to be part of something that has a fantastic and complicated message. It isn’t didactic. Our characters aren’t perfect. They do lots wrong. You have that joy and fun and contradiction — the perfect way to do something that has a message.”
She points out that Orange Is The New Black has turned increasingly subversive across recent years. Piper started out as an archetypal butter wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth naif. As the series has gone, however, the character has become increasingly amoral. We thought the nadir was last season when she branched into extortion and smuggling. Apparently things are to turn even darker this year.
“She went in as our eyes and ears,” says Stone. “She was, as Jenji says, the Trojan Horse. But Piper has flipped. And this year, that darkness is dialled up to 11.”
“Nothing like this has ever been done,” nods DeLaria. “Showtime, HBO… no other network allows you do the things you can on Netflix. It goes even further. This is a show that is doing serious things with diversity: women, queers, race. Never before were you able to turn on TV and see yourself. There was that glammed up version that Hollywood wanted you to think you are. That’s where a lot of the body-shaming, the feeling you’re just not good enough, comes from.”
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