What makes for good television? Is there a formula that can be repeated or does the success of the show rely on other elements outside of the formula? Can these extra elements be created or must they present themselves naturally? The unprecedented success of shows that take the public ‘by storm’, such as Orange is the New Black, brings these questions to mind.
Orange is the New Black or O.I.T.N.B is part of the Netflix’s original programming. Based on the New York Times best seller by the same name, the series is now entering its third season. In its short life span it has proven to be one of the strongest original programs Netflix has to offer, the most watched in Netflix history. The show has become both a critical darling and a fan favorite, winning thirty awards and earning forty nominations to date (IMDb, 2014). It has been hailed as a breath of fresh air or as Emily Nussbaum of the New York Times so eloquently puts it, “a blast of raw oxygen”.
The welcomed arrival of the show and its success is due to a number of factors that were incidentally combined, elements of a standard formula as well as ‘flukes’ that set the stage for the O.I.T.N.B take over. There are a number of factors one could credit for the success of Orange is the New Black, many of which can go off into ongoing tangents. The factors I propose to focus on center around the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan; these factors include Kohan herself, the concept and structure of the show, the distribution medium, and the cast and crew.
Many of the factors that attribute to the success of the show can be traced back to its creator or showrunner Jenji Kohan. In the book Difficult Men by Brett Martin, Martin describes the showrunner as the “unseen, all-knowing deity” (8) responsible for all decisions both major and minor. Orange is the New Black is characteristic of this format, following the television version of the ‘Auteur Theory’, where the showrunner is the Auteur. The central elements that make Orange is the New Black a hit originate and are overseen by showrunner Jenji Kohan. The significance of her work earned her a spot as one of Time Magazine’s Most Influential People whose work and persona is described as “a force of nature”.
Jenji Kohan herself bares a strong similarity to the complex female characters showcased in her work. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter Kohan states “My entire career is, ‘Well, screw you.’”. Kohan knew from an early age that she wanted to become a screenwriter but was repeatedly discouraged by family and partners. Her family, particularly her parents opposed her pursuit of a Hollywood career; denying her of their business connections. She also faced criticism from an ex-boyfriend claiming she had a better chance of being elected to Congress than becoming a writer on a show. While she did find short lived success working on shows like The Fresh Prince and Friends, it was her original material that she yearned to pursue. She became her own worst adversary and acknowledges that her early career could have gone a lot smoother had she ‘played ball’.
The types of stories Jenji was capable of telling lacked a platform in the ‘pre-cable era’. According to her brother, “She was able to do really interesting stuff that was morally complex, but there weren’t a lot of buyers for that at the time.” (Rose, 2014). Being constantly pushed away from her professional aspirations by the industry did not deter Kohan. Instead, she threw herself into her work concentrating entirely on her writing. Like the female characters she creates she kept a strong resolve and persevered despite her circumstances. Her material faced constant rejection, it wasn’t until 2005 when she got her ‘big break’ with the award winning show Weeds. Kohan’s experience as the creator of Weeds gave her practice in working with the concept of the “everywoman anti-heroine” (Hale, 2013). After eight seasons Kohan proved her creative capabilities as a major-league showrunner; allowing her the opportunity to take on a new series, Orange is the New Black.
The show is loosely based on the true story novel by Piper Kerman. While it was Kerman who provided the premise of the story it was the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, who saw the potential of that story. One of the major reasons this memoir called the attention of Kohan was the setting it took place in, a women’s prison. In a 2013 NPR interview Kohan states the reason a prison setting appealed as the setting for a show, “There are very few crossroads any more…I’m looking for those spaces where people actually do mix – and prison just happens to be a terrific one”. Kohan enjoyed the prospect of a setting where this ‘crossroad’ could be established, allowing various types of people and various types of stories to pass through. Which brings us to the second major reason of the memoirs appeal, the character diversity. Kohan saw the setting as the chance to showcase the stories of the types of characters that are rarely seen on standard programming.
Here, at last, were all those missing brown faces, black faces, wrinkled faces, butch lesbians, a transgender character played by a transgender actor—an ensemble of electrifying strangers, all of them so good that it seemed as if some hidden valve had been tapped, releasing fresh stories and new talent (Nussbaum, 2014).
Kohan wanted so badly to tell the stories of the often ignored characters but knew that she needed Piper, both the author and the fictional character, to access this plethora of stories. In the 2013 NPR interview Kohan admits, “You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals.” No matter how compelling or revolutionary these stories may be Kohan recognized that appealing to networks based on these stories alone would prove to be a difficult and unlikely sell. Piper is needed as the “easy access point” that both networks and general audiences can feel comfortable with and relate to. Kohan considers Piper to be her “Trojan Horse”, the character who allows the stories of all these other characters to be told.
Once Kohan had secured the rights to the bestseller that provide a ‘crossroads setting’ and diverse characters she sought a network for her series. One of the main reasons Kohan chose Netflix was the fact that Netflix was so enthusiastic and supportive of the series. Cindy Holland, vice president for Netflix original content, was influenced to take on the series based on Jenji’s previous work and reputation, “Jenji’s got this singular blend of laugh-out-loud, raucous humor combined with the sense of heartbreak and flawed humanity.” (Rose, 2014). They ordered a full first season without viewing a pilot, showing their faith in Kohan as a showrunner and in the series. Her timing was also a major factor since it was at this time that Netflix was seeking out these types of bold series to add to their original programming. Kohan also enjoyed the idea of being one of the first showrunners to have their series available on this ‘new frontier’ of media consumption, online streaming.
With Netflix as her platform Kohan did not have to abide by strong regulations of network censors when it came to the writing and content of the show. She was both happy and eager to “push the boundaries on language, nudity and sex in ways that the book, along with much else on TV had not.” (Rose, 2014). The pushing of these boundaries began with Jenji however, she had a significant amount of assistance in executing this intention. It took an excellent writing staff and cast to test these boundaries and make the series come to life.
Luckily for Jenji her time in the industry, work ethic, and managerial disposition allowed for a close-knit group that harmoniously works well together. According to Tara Herrmann, a former makeup artist for Weeds, it is not unusual to be part of Kohan’s team for ten years (or more). “Her writing rooms are revered for their supportive, familial vibe. She keeps the hours manageable, provides good food and plans frequent themes.” (Rose, 2014). Jenji herself states “I am easy to work with, unless you piss me off.”, a task that seems difficult to accomplish given her approachability as an employer as well as the general shift away from a hierarchical work environment.
Excellent writing alone does not carry the show, it takes a talented cast to translate the boldness of the script onto the screen. One of the best executive decisions Kohan did was hiring casting director Jen Euston to select the actors for this diverse group of characters. One of the first wins for the series occurred at the 2014 Primetime Emmy’s when the show won for Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series. Another remarkable win occurred at the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Awards when the show took home the prize for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series. A notable win since the show was nominated alongside established shows from large networks who had previously dominated the category such as Modern Family, Veep, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Big Bang Theory.
This ‘familial vibe’ Kohan created is not limited to the crew and writing staff. The cast also developed very close-knit relationships viewing each other as more than just coworkers. The actors demonstrate enthusiasm in their own work and support for each other. “When their scenes are done, they stick around and watch other people do their scenes, and they hang out on the weekends. It’s kind of been a love-fest on set.” (NPR, 2013). The genuine appreciation for one another can be seen in how they interact during interviews, award shows, social activism events, or just everyday gatherings; all displayed in the public eye through their various social media accounts. The appeal of the shows characters is not limited to the characters the actors portray but to the actors themselves. The seemingly effortless chemistry between such a large number of people with such different backgrounds is representative of the message of the show, intentional or not, it is a great selling point. The way these actors gravitate towards one another as more than just colleagues causes the audience to gravitate towards them as people and ultimately, the show.
Scott Neumyer from Rolling Stone calls Orange is the New Black “utterly brilliant”, the show that “broke the mold”, his opinions are shared by the great majority of critics and viewers who have embraced the show. So, why is a story centering around a criminal and a prison a breath of fresh air? Orange is the New Black begins with elements from the standard formula, the white female protagonist, prison life, the repentant criminal, and then flips those conventions in ways the audience doesn’t expect. The “lightly satirical dramedy” (Hale, 2013) uses sharp humor to tell intricate stories. Episodes hone in on specific characters and force the viewers to look at that person at a basic human level where the character is not defined by their crime or race. This character examination in turn brings to light social injustices and crimes that are so common they don’t phase the viewer until the reasons or motives are laid out in front of them: domestic abuse, drug trafficking, theft, mistreatment of the trans community, racial profiling, ageism – the list goes on. The blueprint of the show is standard but it is the execution that is awe inspiring and thought provoking.
As previously stated the show’s success can be attributed to a number of factors many of which stem from the showrunner Jenji Kohan. The conception of the show, the influence of Kohan in the writing room and on set, the selection of Netflix for the shows distribution, and Kohan’s approval of Jen Euston who then selected and introduced audiences to this cast. Some or parts of these factors can be interpreted as “flukes” outside the planned formula. Factors the occurred by chance and cannot be repeated. Such factor include the timing of the novel matching the artistic timing of Kohan and Netflix’s search for original programming, the growing popularity of online streaming, or the unlikely friendships and chemistry of the cast and crew. These factors are so layered and interconnected that it is difficult distinguish the exact factors responsible for giving Kohan and Orange is the New Black the fame and recognition they have attained today. The amazement of this unprecedented success is best encapsulated by the showrunner herself, “I don’t know if it’s the subject, the characters, the way it’s consumed or a combination of all those factors, but people’s investment with these women is greater than anything I’ve seen before.”. Even Kohan, the ‘force of nature’ behind the series, is unsure of how she did it.
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