This time last year, the words "women's TV prison drama" had its own specific shorthand. From the cheap sets of Prisoner: Cellblock H to the OTT melodrama of UTV's Bad Girls, incarceration dramas have been an odd mix of formulaic and stagily earnest.
In 2011 Weeds producer Jenji Kohen heard about a memoir by Piper Kerman, who spent a year in jail after an ex-girlfriend implicated her in a drugs and money-laundering scam. The resulting show – based loosely based on Kerman's book – is Orange Is the New Black, a mould-shattering show that has changed many things about TV.
Firstly it deals with aspects of penitentiary life that are uncompromising: drug use, explicit sex, and violence among inmates. It also happens to star a lot of women and is surely the most intersectional representation ever seen on TV: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, lesbian, transgender (in a show-stealing performance by Laverne Cox) actors make up the vibrant ensemble cast.
A Taystee part
In a London hotel,
, who plays Taystee, is enthusiastically praising this aspect of the show, while pointing out how much things have changed. “Growing up, I did see women of colour on television, like Whoopi,
The Cosby Show
, but they weren’t alongside our white counterparts and now the door is being opened. In
, I get to act alongside women who look like me.”
Brooks says people have mixed up actors on the show, purely based on skin colour. “I’m like, ‘Hello, I’m not Poussey’, and it aggravates me when someone mistakes me for Crazy Eyes [another of the show’s standout characters]. As far as we’ve come, there’s a lot of work to do. You only make a mistake like that by not caring enough about making that mistake.”
Brooks was originally written in for just two episodes, but has become one of its stars. She leans conspiratorially across the table to tell me something the show’s creator said to her. “Before we started filming, Jenji said to me, ‘You better get ready, you got a lot to do this season.’ ”
Unknowns and well-knowns
Kohen took a risk casting several unknowns (including
in the lead role of Piper), but there are well-known faces.
, best known for her role as Donna in
That Seventies Show
, plays Piper’s ex-girlfriend.
Prepon enters the room wearing a glittering dress, and apologises for the fact that she’s wearing hotel-issue slippers. Earlier this year, it was rumoured that she wouldn’t appear much in series two, but she says today that she has signed on for the next series, which is about to start shooting. When we met last year, she said that the script was the best she had read in years and lamented the lack of interesting roles for female actors. Her character, Alex, shows up in the same jail as Piper, ultimately driving a wedge between Piper and her husband, Larry (Jason Biggs).
“Alex is way more complex than anything I’ve played before,” says Prepon. “She’s a total badass, but you get to see a vulnerable side of her and how the things you do for love make you crazy. She and Piper loved the whole whirlwind they were in. It was a special time in their lives that they both miss, but it was dangerous too.
“I see Larry as a victim in all of this, because he didn’t actually commit a crime. For a long time he didn’t know that Piper did either, and when the revelations about Alex come, it means he just keeps getting hurt. To him all the women inside are just prisoners, but the audience knows all of their stories. They’ve committed crimes and made mistakes, but we fall in love with them and root for them.”
Series two sees changes for Biggs’s character, with temptation rearing its head. It’s a difficult role for him to play on a couple of levels. As a character, he’s intrinsically linked to Piper, and as an actor, his scenes are shot in a different location to the rest of the cast.
“I can see that it’s going to get harder to keep Larry in the show, so I’m keen to see where it goes. All the women get to work together and party on set – and my scenes are basically just me on my iPhone. They yell ‘action”, and it’s me on the phone. Again,” he laughs.
Biggs and Prepon are both established on TV and in film, and they believe that the streaming services are changing not just the way we consume shows, but how writers approach the writing and structure itself. There is more room to develop characters, and more creative control. Prepon likens Orange to a "13-hour movie", and says the show isn't "micromanaged by Netflix the way some of the networks control their shows".
Biggs believes the slower burn offers more creative freedom, which "trickles down to the actors. These days, television is more like film. All these film-makers are coming over to TV – and not just because fewer movies are being made that aren't sequels or superhero stories – and making these epic shows. "Did you see True Detective?" he asks. "Wasn't that was like an incredible movie?"
The show has done a good job of highlighting new talent. Brooks is one of the stars, playing both defiantly fragile and brilliantly funny (not to mention her incredible singing voice). Her character is one of the most institutionalised on the show, and in the new series, she has to confront a woman from her past who enters the prison.
The use of backstories
The producers have also employed the use of backstories to show us the characters as children or the situations that led them to prison. For Brooks, the role has opened more doors, including a cameo on Lena Dunham’s
. “I’m starting to get offers from independent films, whereas before it was a real challenge to even get in a room with a director. Now I get to meet directors for lunch, and it’s making me start to believe that I belong in this world. I feel now that I have more confidence in this community of actors and artists.”
The backstory structure also offers an opportunity to explore the lives of more peripheral characters. We learn about Taystee’s route to prison, the family past of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren and the root of her issues, and the reality of Lorna Morello’s relationship with her much-mentioned “Christopher”.
Before Orange first aired last year, the creators of the show had no concept of who would watch it. Brooks points out that at this year's White House Washington correspondents' dinner, President Obama referenced the show in a joke. Laura Prepon tells a story about a friend's 85-year-old grandmother who loves the show. "It hit me that this elderly woman adores a show where the main relationship is a same-sex one – and that shows how far we've come as a society, right?"
All 13 episodes of series two of Orange Is the New Black are on Netflix from Friday