‘Weeds’ Creator Revisits Crime and Punishment

Jenji Kohan of Netflix’s latest, ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ explains her attraction to the prison setting.

Taylor Schilling appears in a scene from Netflix's "Orange is the New Black."

Taylor Schilling appears in a scene from Netflix's "Orange is the New Black."

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The producer who brought us "Weeds," a television comedy about a pretty suburban widow who sold marijuana to make ends meet, is back with another WASP-y woman thrown into a world of crime and punishment – this time, with the emphasis on punishment.

Jenji Kohan's newest show "Orange is the New Black," follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a fresh-faced, thirty-something blonde who is sent to prison for a crime she committed a decade ago.

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"There's certainly some similar socio-economic background," Kohan says, comparing "Weeds'" Nancy Botwin to Piper. "They're both hot. They both have that sort of adventure junkie gene in them. What attracts me is how they walk that line and the push-pull between those sides of them: The good girl and the part of them who wants to be the rebel and escape their stereotype."

Similarities aside, Kohan based "Orange Is the New Black" – the entire season of which Netflix is dropping in a single release next week – on Piper Kerman's 2010 memoir of the same name.

"It's not necessarily women who break the law, I'm just deeply fascinated by flawed characters," Kohan said. "I think underground economies are a great place to find them."

When we meet Piper, she is happily settling down with her sweet Jewish fiancé (Jason Biggs), pawning a line of artisanal bath soaps and enjoying a yuppie Brooklyn lifestyle. But once upon a time, she was a lesbian who smuggled drug money for her edgy girlfriend (Laura Prepon).

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"Then it got scary and I ran away and became the nice blonde lady I was supposed to be," Piper explains to her boyfriend on the pilot episode. Nevertheless, her crimes eventually caught up to her 10 years later, and she's sent to the clinker.

Like "Weeds," the premise allows Kohan to explore what happens when you put a white, sheltered woman into a gritty world with all different races, ethnicities, economic backgrounds and sexual orientations.

"Once I read the script, I was really, really impressed that there was a woman who was the centerpiece of her own story and that it was less a role that was in reaction to a man," Schilling said during a conference call Tuesday with Kohan.

And like "Weeds," it can take on heavy topics – in this case, prison justice, racial tensions and white privilege – with a biting, satiric and even absurd edge.

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"If you go to a network and say, I want to talk about Latinos and their prison experience and the cycle of poverty, it's not going to be a big sale," Kohan said. "But if you can ride in on Piper and then expand the world and tell everyone's story, it's a great Trojan horse."

The show also reveals the backstories of Piper's fellow prisoners, who include a Russian immigrant who runs the kitchen a la the Soup Nazi (Kate Mulgrew), a feisty former junkie (Natasha Lyonne) and a statuesque transsexual who also serves as the jail's beautician (Laverne Cox).

There are also some intriguing male storylines: Piper's adorably sheepish boyfriend is grappling not only with his fiancée admitting to once being a crime-committing lesbian, but the need to put their engagement on hold, as well as deciding whether to watch new "Mad Men" episodes without her (despite a promise not to). The show also treats its mostly male prison guards with sympathy, which is a departure from the book.

"That's one of [Kerman's] biggest complaints, that they're not big enough a--holes," said Kohan. "You want everyone to be a full character, and no one is just evil. And they're characters, so you want to flesh them out and you've got to show all sides of them."

Aside from the premise, Kohan says the show and its characters should be considered works of fiction. But in addition to the ample amount of research Kohan and her team did on prison life, Kerman reads every script and frequently weighs in.

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