Back when The Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan was the Museum of Television & Radio, a blond Fordham undergraduate named Taylor Schilling worked the front desk. She returned last night, less than a decade later, to walk the red carpet, a bona fide star of the undeniably successful Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. When asked about the experience, Schilling laughed at the memory, claiming she “had to bring home the bacon somehow.” When the occasional repeat visitor asks for her at reception, they’re told she’s in prison.
Wednesday night was a celebration of Orange, and humor set the tone across the board, often dolled out at the expense of Jason Biggs, the only male cast member in attendance. The event was the kick off for the inaugural PaleyFest: Made in New York, which even brought out Mayor Michael Bloomberg for a few choice quotes about all the cameos he’s done – and those he’d still like to do before his term expires on December 31st. Orange, arguably the best and most innovative of the current New York shows, was a natural for the premiere panel. In addition to members of the cast – Schilling, Biggs, Natasha Lyonne, Kate Mulgrew, Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba and Taryn Manning – the panelists included creator Jenji Kohan and Piper Kerman, whose memoir the show is based on. She began the panel by elaborating on the book and show’s shared title: it’s obviously a reference to the female fashion maxim, but also to the fact that, thanks to the war on drugs, women are the fastest growing demographic in prisons today.
The conversation oscillated between the war on drugs, the absurdity of deflating tits, the deeper meaning of the chicken and women who were “gay for the stay.” In many ways, it paralleled the show, which strikes a balance between pushing the boundaries of television and catering to smart entertainment in order to keep the audience hooked. (Manning’s character Pennsatucky, who exchanged meth for a “Christian-Baptist-Evangelist-Catholic” love of the lord, epitomizes both extremes.) Kohan, who is every bit as colorful as her bright blue hair, knows how to make a binge-worthy series without sacrificing real issues or characters that elicit visceral reactions. “I don’t set out to write heroes or anti-heros,” she explained, touching on the current cultural conversation surrounding Breaking Bad. “I write characters – flawed characters. It’s not about stereotypes and labels.”
Though the progression is hardly as dramatic, Schilling aptly compared her character to Walter White: “It’s exploding stereotypes. . . for a woman to be that deeply ambiguous is rare, brave and risky.” Moreover, to have a show that is so female dominated is also rare, risky and tribute to the cast, Kohan and Orange‘s writers. Adds Brooks, who plays the lovable Taystee, “The material is just so high you want to meet it. It raises the bar.” She emphasized that African American actress’ have to be conscious of just playing stereotypes, and she was proud that “the world can look at her [character] in a different way than we have in past.” Even Crazy Eyes, a character many have written-off as a caricature of mental illness, is against the grain. Uzo Aduba, who left Broadway to play the Shakespeare-spouting inmate, sees her less as comedic relief and more as a romantic “interested in the pursuit of love and how far someone would go for love.”
In some way or another, the whole show is ultimately about love. Biggs explained that he saw his character Larry as a victim, and described his love for Schilling’s Piper and their separation as his own personal struggle “to survive on the outside” (he also mentioned how this was his most difficult role to date, adding that Schilling was “one of the best scene partners I’ve ever had.”) Since the majority of the show is set inside the extreme environment that is any prison, for the women, things often get down to primal needs. At the center there is Piper’s knotty relationship with Alex (the noticeably absent Laura Prepon), but all the characters are in some way wrestling for solidarity. Whether it’s through sex (Lyonne’s Nicky), a “bromance” like Taystee’s with cast mate Poussey (Samira Wiley), or the hard-ass mothering courtesy of Red, played by the phenomenal Mulgrew, like life, connections are how to make it in prison. Kohan added that it was ironic Kerman had been advised, “Don’t make friends” before being locked-up, when really it’s the only way to survive.
The show draws heavily from the book for details and inspiration, hence Kerman’s valued input on set and on the panel. Nonetheless, it only springboards off of themes outlined in the text, sometimes blowing them up (and sometimes mirroring the memoir with cinematic flair). For example, the proposal scene is incredibly accurate, yet Alex is largely a fictitious character (fun fact: Prepon was briefly considered for Schilling’s role, but was ultimatly overlooked when Kohan realized she needed someone she would legitimately worry about in prison.) Orange‘s success and Emmy buzz are proof to how well it’s been adapted. As Schilling put it, “It’s inspired by the book, not bound by it. It’s a different medium, it’s a T.V. show,” – wait – “no, it’s a streaming show. That you can watch on any device!”
And if you haven’t already, you most definitely should.