COVER STORY

The Revenge of Jenji Kohan

Smart. Funny. Obsessive. Subversive. How the creator of the hit TV shows Weeds and Orange Is the New Black smoked the doubters and got the last laugh.

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2016
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Kohan pleads guilty. “I love flawed people,” she says. “I love the damage in these characters. It’s so human and so relatable. People spend so much time trying to hide it and cover it, and no one’s succeeding. I love embracing it. I love mess. I love gray areas. I want to live in the gray areas.”

EXT. A HOUSE IN BEVERLY HILLS – 1982

From within, we hear sounds of PARENTAL EDICTS: “Shut off the TV! Go be social! Go do something productive!”

INT. SAME HOUSE – CONTINUOUS

As THE CAMERA pushes through the rooms, we see a crammed bookcase, a menorah, a shelf crowded with Emmy statuettes.

THE CAMERA arrives in the TV room, where a TEENAGE GIRL is curled on a sofa, watching Cheers.

PARENTAL VOICE
(from next room)
Go learn to play tennis!


Jenji Kohan grew up in Beverly Hills with her older twin brothers, David and Jono, and her parents, Rhea and Buz. Rhea was a novelist, and Buz was an award-winning TV writer who worked on hundreds of network specials and series, including The Carol Burnett Show and the Academy Awards. But the most sacred objects in the house were not his collection of Emmys — they were books. The kids were encouraged to be readers, not viewers. And not writers. Doctors and lawyers, preferably. Something secure.

Kohan was an erratic student, but she tested well. After some unhappy years in an all-girls private school, which had cutthroat social divisions, she transferred to the coeducational wilderness of Beverly Hills High.

“It was a fascinating culture,” she says. “Everyone was trying so hard to be sophisticated that there weren’t strict hierarchies. It was more like interest groups. And the parties were amazing: ‘So-and-So Productions Presents: Party at Larry’s Mom’s House.’” Kohan recalls John Hughes–caliber blowouts, the kind that end with a mannequin in the pool and a pizza on the turntable. UCLA football players were hired as security. “Once you got past them, it was like the rings of hell: friends of friends on the tennis courts, friends in the house, then really good friends in the room with the cocaine, because it was the eighties.”

College was next. Kohan desperately wanted to go to New York, to Columbia. But there was a snag.

“Columbia wouldn’t let me in,” Kohan says. “So I started at Brandeis. Every few weeks I’d write to Columbia and say, ‘I think you made a mistake. Look! I just won a writing contest! I’m doing so well! Let me in, let me in, let me in.’ Then two weeks later: ‘Hi. Remember me? I just won $250. You should really let me in.’”

 

Revenge is an act of passion; vengeance of justice,” wrote Samuel Johnson. “Injuries are revenged; crimes are avenged.”

That’s a helpful distinction, but clearly, Dr. Johnson never saw Orange Is the New Black. At the fictional Litchfield Prison in upstate New York, justice is so arbitrary, and passion so suppressed, that payback becomes less a legal or moral question and more a matter of style. The dynamics of retaliation enter every relationship in Orange.

Fortunately, Kohan also has great love for her characters, who in turn love each other — intensely, agonizingly, clumsily. And as they play their risky games, the show exacts its own reprisals against pieties of all sorts, while smartly skewering what Kohan calls the “out-of-control prison-industrial complex.”

“It’s not a secret that the work I do is also my soapbox,” she says. “Having a soapbox is a great privilege. However, it’s not effective if you’re scolding people. I always have an agenda, but my first job is to entertain and make the audience care about those characters and stories. You’ll never get your point across or move the needle or plant ideas unless people are invested. No one wants to be lectured. People watch TV for pleasure. It’s got to be fun. Prison is a dark, dark world, but I don’t think we’re being disingenuous by making it comedic. Humor is how you survive the darkness.”

Orange is essentially a comedy. Its snappy “Private Benjamin goes to jail” hook got the show past the gates, where it morphed into a human mosaic of faces and figures and sexualities unlike anything on television. (“Piper was my Trojan horse,” Kohan has said, meaning that she needed a pretty white lead to sell the show, and could not have sold it on the “fascinating tales of Black women, and Latina women, and old women, and criminals.”) Equally striking is the show’s ability to stay emotionally trenchant even as it deploys gross-out gags and takes sex to places several light years from family hour. “When we go dark, we go dark; when we go funny, we can get big sometimes,” Kohan says. “But I think both are more powerful when you juxtapose them — slam comedy right up against tragedy.”

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