Culture on the Run,  TV

Piper Kerman on the Success of Orange is the New Black

With Orange is the New Black gaining more than its fair share of Emmy nominations, the show is proving to be both critically and popularly loved. The real Piper – Kerman, not Chapman – was at Bryant Park’s wonderful outdoor Reading Room to talk to TV critic Emily Nussbaum about her memoir and the success of the show.

The show received 12 of the 31 nominations Netflix received, and was most certainly a factor in the streaming service reaching 50 million subscribers. I finished my OITNB Season 2 binge about two weeks after the show was released on Netflix. After the first season introduced us to the likes of Crazy Eyes/Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) and “Red” aka Galina Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew), we got to know more about the characters in the second one. More about their back stories, more about their vices and victories, and of course more about their sexual activities.

What I liked a lot about Season 2 is that it also developed the characters of the prison guards more. I found myself seeing Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) in a new light, and I think the actor playing him deserved a little nod of appreciation. Kerman spoke about this at the Q-and-A, saying series creator Jenji Kohan was wise to humanize all of the people because the institution of prison changes everyone’s lives. “I didn’t expect anyone on the law enforcement side to come out saying they liked my book,” she says. “But when I found myself introducing the new attorney-general at the White House, I was slightly amused. But many of the people who’ve worked their entire careers within law enforcement say it’s a f***ed up system. To hear from them that my memoir is truthful and accurate means more to me than anything. It stuns me and makes me hopeful.”

The hopeful part interested me a lot. While we are enjoying OITNB as an excellent TV series that so deftly weaves comedy and drama together with memorable characters, Kerman, and others she served time with, is pushing for criminal justice reform, for non-violent offenders. Since getting out of prison in 2005, she’s been rallying for change in American prisons, which have the biggest prison population in the world, especially with regards to women.

The show’s use of humour to make otherwise uncomfortable situations watchable is its greatest strength, she says. “Jenji always says ‘straight drama is bulls***,’ and humour is the biggest part of life, our biggest coping mechanism. Very few people would stick with the material of a show about women if it wasn’t for the humour.” Kerman believes the same is true for the way the film deals with racism.

As for the sex – “I’m a big ol’ feminist,” says Kerman. “It’s a big part of our lives, so I think it’s great to see it on a show like this. You see a huge spectrum of human sexuality while in prison, so I think the show is an accurate reflection in that sense.” If you were wondering though, it’s inaccurate in another. The real Piper’s sentence consisted of “13 long, celibate months.”

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