Screen In All The Right Places - Pt. 1: Orange Is The New Black

Students love nothing better than crashing in front of the television. Back in the day that used to mean ironically watching Podge and Rodge and Catchphrase. But we are in the middle of a TV revolution, with some of the greatest shows ever created now beamed into our living rooms. We talk to the stars of Netflix’s latest smash Orange Is The New Black and to the creator of the soon-to-conclude Breaking Bad.

Between Netflix, Sky+, UPC On Demand and the many wheel-cranking gnomes of the internet, the way we consume telly is definitely changing, but the post-show post-mortem, be it on Twitter, or at the office water cooler, ain’t going nowhere.

In 2013, we’re spending more time discussing the plot twists and turns of our favourite TV programmes than ever… and with more people than ever (if you found comfort in your Facebook feed after Dan Stevens’ shock departure from Downton Abbey, you’ll know what I mean!)

Thanks to innovators like Vince Gilligan, Lena Dunham and Louis C.K., telly drama has entered a new golden age, and frankly, we’re finding it hard to keep up!

For this reason (and also, because we think Laura Prepon is a stone cold fox!), we decided a Hot Press TV special was in order. Over the next few pages, we meetthe brilliant brains behind show-stopping dramas Orange Is The New Black and Breaking Bad as well as bigging up some of our favourite serials of the moment.

It seemed fitting to celebrate some of TV’s most talked-about shows in our annual Student Issue, given that Team Hot Press spent a good portion of our years in third level education catching up on and trading box-sets (shhh! don’t tell our professors!)

That said, even if you don’t have a huge amount of time on your hands, we whole-heartedly recommend you get acquainted with the brilliant shows profiled on the following pages.

Just don’t come crying to us when you find yourself planning your social calendar around Game Of Thrones binge-watching sessions…

Talk about a baptism of phwoar. For her very first scene in the buzzy new drama Orange Is The New Black, Laura Prepon was required to take all her clothes off and, tongues akimbo, snog co-star Taylor Schilling. It took half a day to shoot and was, it would appear, almost as squirm inducing as you imagine.

“It was a shower scene,” says Prepon, a 31-year old New Jersey native. “That was the opening shot on the opening day. Me and Taylor in the shower. I’d met Taylor already and knew we had creative chemistry. I remember saying to her, ‘Thank God it’s you I’m doing this with!’ I can’t imagine what it might have been like with someone else. It would have been different, that’s for sure.”

Orange Is The New Black is the hottest thing on television, even if it’s not on quite on TV. A prison drama set in an all women’s penitentiary it’s the latest production from on-demand streaming service Netflix and follows this year’s acclaimed remake of political romp House Of Cards. Based on the true life story of a middle-class woman dispatched to the clinker after a youthful flirtation with drug smuggling returns to haunt her - any resemblance to real world events is strictly coincidental – Orange has something for everything: snappy dialogue, richly evoked characters and – we might as well be the ones to say it – lashings of soft core lesbian goings on (that’s all bases covered then).

“When I saw the script, it was clear it was head and shoulders over everything I had read,” says Prepon, still best-known for playing Donna Pinciotti in That Seventies Show, with subsequent stints on Law And Order and CSI.

Originally she had auditioned for the lead role of Piper Chapman, an artisan soap creator banged up for helping transport laundered drug money ten years previously. That role went to Schilling, whose chief claim to our attention until now was acting opposite Zac Effron’s quiff in 2012 rom-dram The Lucky One. However, Orange... creator Jenji Cohan (credits include another suburban drug drama, Weeds) thought Prepon would be perfect as Alex Vause, Piper’s former drug smuggling lover (aka the one who got her into her present mess in the first place, with whom she reconnects, in a very physical sense, in prison).

“It’s insane the way Orange... is taking off,” Prepon enthuses. “You never know how people are going to receive something. You do your best work and then see how it flies. On set we definitely felt we were doing something special.”

The setting serves as a Trojan Horse in a way. In each episode the life story of an inmate is conveyed in flashback. Thus, the show delves into the backgrounds of characters who, as per the profile of the US prison population, are overwhelmingly African American and Latino. Speaking recently Cohan said she saw Orange... as a device whereby she could explore the experiences of America’s ethnic poor under the guise of spinning the lurid tale of an archetypal Good Girl Gone Bad.

“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. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and tell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.”

She was enthusiastic about working with Netflix, believing that streaming TV and ‘binge watching’ are the future.

“I remember one of my writers on Weeds got a new apartment and didn’t get cable or a dish,” Prepon resumes. “He just hooked his computer up to the TV. I was like, ‘This is it. This is how it’s happening.’ To be able to be there first, I love the pioneer thing. It’s exciting to me. And they pay full rate, they’re really nice, they support the work, and they said ‘yes’. What could be bad? It’s the Wild West. You can do what you want. On the other hand, we worked a year on this and some people are going to watch it in a night and go, ‘We want more!’ And there is something I miss about the longing and the anticipation for the next episode. But, how many times can you get exactly what you want, when you want it? Not very often. So, why not have it with entertainment?”

When mainstream television tackles gay and lesbian issues the results tend to be sensationalist and stereotype reinforcing (Queer As Folk) or supremely tacky (The L Word). It can be argued that, with its acres of bared flesh, Orange... occasionally teeters between the two. Nonetheless, the show is visibly committed to portraying sexual minorities as real people rather than ciphers or plot points. In its own occasionally lurid fashion Orange... is breaking new ground.

“This is one of the few things on TV that really portrays female relationships,” Prepon ventures. “The only other I can think of was The L Word. We do it in a very different way. The gay and lesbian community is really big and it’s fantastic to be able to portray those relationships in a sensitive and realistic fashion.”

Such has been the show’s overnight impact Prepron has, to her ongoing shock and delight, acquired a lesbian fanbase.

“I take it as a total compliment. It’s crazy.”

 Not everyone is enamoured. In America, there’s been the beginning of a backlash. The chief criticism is that Orange... fetishises minority America for the delectation of white audiences. Rather than confronting prejudice, goes the argument, it reinforces it.

“With very little exception, I saw wildly racist tropes,” writes Aura Bogado in The Nation. “Black women who, aside from fanaticizing about fried chicken, are called monkeys and Crazy Eyes; a Boricua mother who connives with her daughter for the sexual attentions of a white prison guard; an Asian woman who never speaks; and a crazy Latina woman who tucks away in a bathroom stall to photograph her vagina. The pornographic image is indiscriminately paraded throughout an entire episode.”

Whatever about such critiques, one of the ways Orange... has unquestionably pushed against convention is the casting of transgender actress Laverne Cox as the prison’s in-house beautician and who, as we learn, used to be a fireman named Marcus. A pin-up in the transgender community Cox achieved fame when she appeared on the 2008 reality show I Want To Work For Diddy, in which, as per the title, she competed to win employment as a dogsbody or rapper P.Diddy. Her story is especially newsworthy given that Wikileaks leaker Bradley Manning has announced he wishes to live as a woman, changing his name to Chelsea.

As with Preporn, her first day on set was both tense and memorable, though for different reasons. Overseeing the shoot was Oscar-winning actress and cinema icon Jodie Foster, who’s directed several episodes of the show.

“Jodie is such an actor’s director for obvious reasons,” Cox tells Hot Press. “She’s a brilliant actor herself. She was really generous. It was like a masterclass working with her. She was incredible. It was a dream come true to get to work with someone of that calibre. It made me raise my game. I hope I did.”

She and her character differ in often profound ways. What they have in common is a lifetime of struggling with gender issues, of fighting to be treated like a normal human being.

“I relate to Sophia’s feelings of guilt. She’s she sacrificed everything: her family, her freedom to be true to who she is and to live as her authentic self. She’s paid an awful price for that in terms of her family. There’s some guilt around that, which she hasn’t been able to resolve fully, particularly her relationship with her son, Michael. She hasn’t been able to resolve the guilt around that yet. I can certainly relate to the conflict between being true to myself. So that’s something that I very much relate to.”

In one gruelling episode Sophia is denied the hormones required to help her stay fully female. Cox knows what it’s like to be victimised in such a fashion.

“Unfortunately I’ve had some moments in my adult life where I’ve been denied health care because I’m trans. That’s definitely something I very much relate to. Sophia advocates for herself as well in prison.”

It would be wrong to pigeonhole Orange... as a gay/trans show. The resonances are far wider. Ten years after The Sopranos anti-heroes are no longer a novelty on our screens. However, richly drawn, morally nuanced women remain a rarity on primetime.

 “We’ve had Breaking Bad and Mad Men and Sopranos,” Cox reflects. ”Women are as complicated and flawed as men are. And just as powerful and wonderful. That’s what people connect to.”

For Prepon, the success of Orange... brings additional good news. Maybe she will finally, finally be able to step outside the shadow of her That Seventies Show character.

 “Seventies was for eight years. It was amazing. That was my first real job. Since then I’ve been on a lot of shows and movies. However, I’venever played a character like this before. She’s a total bad ass. I love her!”

Orange Is The New Black is screening on Netflix.


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