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Entries in laura prepon (2)


In Which We Follow Her Inside The Prison

True Nature


Orange Is The New Black
creator Jenji Kohan

No one holds Piper Chapman’s hand. Not really. Instead, she is groped and ignored and ridiculed. This stays true to the fish out of water narrative of Orange Is The New Black and Piper is a classic fish out of water. Nice, quiet white ladies do not end up in prison. And if they do, it is because things happen “to” them rather than “because” of them. But as Orange Is The New Black unfolds, we soon learn that Piper is not hapless or innocent or quiet. She is certainly not nice. No, like the other women in the prison, Piper is a woman who made choices and must now face the consequences.

Piper (Taylor Schilling) is serving 13 months in prison for helping smuggle drugs across the border for her ex-girlfriend, Alex Vause. It is no surprise then to learn that Piper must now serve her prison sentence with Alex. For the first few episodes, Piper makes her animosity toward Alex well known, ultimately blaming her for her prison sentence. In true Piper form, she has neglected to take responsibility for her own actions and her complicity in the crime.

Orange Is The New Black is about finding the humanity in people we often assume have none. We stigmatize the experiences of people in prison without knowing what led them to this environment. For Piper, the reality of prison has not sunk in. Her only possibility of survival is to accept both what she’s done and her true nature as a woman who is not as perfect and nice as she thinks she is.

It becomes evident as the show progresses that the most compelling characters and stories have little, if anything, to do with Piper. There are no magical negroes or spiritual guides for Piper’s experience in prison. The show is a powerful and overt representation of race relations both in and outside of prison. The stereotypes are thick with vitriol in the show’s initial episodes, though they dissipate as the show progresses. As Piper begins to acclimate herself to the culture of prison, there is a real possibility that for Piper’s sensibilities, even speaking openly about race (prejudiced or otherwise) is a shock.

Elsewhere we are drawn into the romantic yet troubling “relationship” of Daya Diaz (Dascha Polanco) and correctional officer John Bennett (Matt McGorry). We are fascinated by Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), Piper’s roommate and an older woman who must come to terms with the possibility of her own parole. And Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), a transgender woman and a truer protagonist of the show, is all glamour and wisdom and heart. She could certainly warrant a spin-off on her own.

The opening credits of Orange Is The New Black are particularly compelling. Featuring a theme song by Regina Spektor, we view a series of close-ups of different women’s faces. None are particularly “pretty” and really, that is not the point. The credits go on for a long time and they linger.

What we find ourselves more drawn to is the sheer abundance of faces – young and old, wrinkled and baby-faced – that represent the varying demographics of the prison system. Yes, jails are disproportionately filled with black and hispanic men and women. But there are many different “types” of prisoners, and the circumstances that led to their imprisonment are as diverse and distinct as their faces.

In a recent interview for Fresh Air, Orange Is The New Black creator Jenji Kohan noted that a show featuring a rich cast of multidimensional and racially and sexually diverse characters could not “sell” without a protagonist (a white and blonde and pretty protagonist) like Piper. Granted, the initial source material for the television show is the memoir of the same name written by Piper Kerman. But many elements (such as Piper “reuniting” with Alex) were created or altered specifically for the show.

In the interview, Kohan said:

In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. 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 try to sell 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.

Still, Orange is the New Black represents a teachable moment for its lead. It is OK to hate Piper. In fact, as the show progresses, the writers and creators have made sure to highlight Piper’s flaws (and there are many). Within these walls Piper finds herself. And as nauseating as that reads, what she unwraps is someone who is not as great or insightful or “good” as she thought she was and what other people have told her she must be. In prison, Piper discovers what makes her like anyone else. That she must be locked up to understand this only speaks to the ways in which her privileged life has sheltered her from the realities of her own adulthood.

Brittany Julious is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about a solitary existence.

"Your Face" - Delorean (mp3)

"Unhold" - Delorean (mp3)



In Which We Paraphrase Our Ribald Memoir

Dial Tone


Are You There, Chelsea?
created by Dottie Zicklin and Julie Ann Larson

In the mid-90s, during the early stages of filming a pilot, NBC president Don Ohlmeyer had a little problem. The embryonic show in question had a script wherein one of the main female characters was to sleep with a man on the first date. Ohlmeyer worried this would negatively color the audience’s perception of the character; he was concerned that she would appear promiscuous, and promiscuity was not an appropriate trait for what was supposed to be a highly relatable character. After taping the pilot, producers handed out a questionnaire to the studio audience members, most of whom did not mind the character’s sexual behavior. The plot stayed intact.

That pilot was the first episode of Friends, and though networks like NBC probably still include questionnaires in their screening methodologies, the idea of gingerly surveying an audience’s reaction to a one-night stand is almost too quaint. At least it is in the context of the current crop of network comedies, whose pitches might have read, "Women who keep it real, have sex with their bras on and make a lot of dick jokes." Whitney Cummings wouldn’t bat an eye at Monica Geller’s first episode tryst with Paul the Wine Guy – she’d applaud it.

All of this hoopla — the hoopla about women who burp and fart and fuck and swallow the tequila worm on a regular basis — really started in earnest with Bridesmaids and now seems to be culminating in NBC's Are You There, Chelsea? starring Laura Prepon as a young Chelsea Handler and Chelsea Handler as Sloane, Chelsea Handler’s more responsible elder sister.

Are You There, Chelsea? is an evident paraphrasing of Handler’s ribald 2008 memoir Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea; the erasure of the word “vodka” from one title to the next reflects the clumsiness of the translation, as Are You There, Chelsea?’s writers have amputated all of the grimy charm of the book and replaced it with jokes about redheads and dull sitcom platitudes.

Handler is a fairly funny woman, both on her E! show and in her memoirs. Her compendium of sexual encounters, My Horizontal Life, isn’t explicit in the way a Cosmo Red-Hot Read would be, but it is autobiographical, tart, picaresque and optimistic, like a promiscuous Great Expectations. One chapter depicts Handler as a reluctant cruise ship passenger, tossing back vodka and Kool-Aid in Dixie cups, then vomiting over the side of the ship and having a man named Rico carry her back to her room "like a scene out of The English Patient." Later on the vacation, she has sex with an acrobatic young man who turns out to be a cruise ship performer. Embarrassment ensues.

A TV adaptation of Handler’s stories would seem ideal: her anecdotal style would convert well into 30-minute segments; her sex life is absurd enough to be comical, ample enough to be appropriately “edgy” for younger viewers, and still not explicit enough to merit much censorship; and her fan base would follow her from late-night to primetime without difficulty. After all, Chelsea Lately snags more young female viewers than Jimmy Kimmel Live.

The reasons for the terrible quality of Are You There, Chelsea? is threefold. First, there’s the writing. Chelsea works at a bar in New Jersey; a flashback reveals she has attempted to mate with her semi-boss, Rick (Jack McDorman) only to discover that both she and Rick enjoy being on top too much to make things work. This joke, already a bit of a stretch, is repeated three or four times throughout the pilot with different verbiage. Chelsea makes fun of a ginger hookup ("Maybe I should go out with someone like that, even if he does look like Kathy Griffin") and her virgin roommate ("She is a rare and beautiful creature. We need to keep her the way she is, and then stuff her when she dies").

Her best friend (Ali Wong) plays the sidekick to excess, and that virginal roommate (Lauren Lapkus) is an ectomorph who scurries around her apartment like a Rachel Dratch SNL sketch canned before the first dress rehearsal. Chelsea's father is crass and cheap (a flashback shows him buying a "Lettuce Leaf Kid" for a kindergarten-aged Chelsea) and the bar employs a little person (a notorious Handler fixation) who at one point explains his yen for "seniors": "She was 64. And the osteoporosis brought her down to my size."

The writing well may be symptomatic of the show’s second ill, the format. Every stale joke only grows staler in the context of multicamera shots and Ye Olde Laughe Tracke. Falling back on weary television formats seems like a cowardly recession-era impulse for comfort and reassurance. It's the equivalent of plying woman to buy chocolate by showing the same old adverts: chick cuddled up on the couch, warm and snuggly, slowly devouring a one-inch square of processed cocoa product. The most successful shows on television right now, besides those that involve warbling neophytes and panels of smug judges (a.k.a. “smudges”), establish substantial stories and employ formats that feel contemporary.

The only saving grace of Are You There, Chelsea?, Ms. Handler herself, wastes away in the fruitless older sister role. Handler parlays her trademark bitterness into playing Sloane, the evident moral compass (you can tell by the mousy brown wig) who in the first episode gives birth to a baby whose father is in Afghanistan. Sloane plays the married and monogamous foil to Chelsea and her many conquests. The portrayal of Chelsea herself is loose and relaxed, as if perpetually three drinks in, but it lacks Handler’s acidity. Like John Belushi when he removes his sunglasses near the end of The Blues Brothers, Handler can convey plenty of meaning through a single look, except Belushi’s gaze was puppyish and Handler’s is withering. She doesn't show up nearly enough in the show, and one wishes 36 weren’t an age that Hollywood deems unfit for providing suitably youthful television.

In a recent interview, the artist Josh Kline called actors "surrogates." To him, television shows are substitutions for the parts of life you don’t have time to live, and television characters as people with whom you can maintain a "low-maintenance relationship." In other words, "you know them, but they don’t know you." What makes such a one-sided relationship possible is the desire to know those ostensible actor-strangers, the people who begin as foreigners and end up as friends. Theoretically, Chelsea Handler’s popularity arises from the simulated intimacy of her talk show and books; she speaks to you, she regales you with her embarrassing stories, she is on your level, even though she’s on E! and you’re on your couch. But even that low-maintenance relationship between viewer and character becomes laborious in the context of Handler’s sitcom. There is no desire to make the foreigner a friend when the foreigner’s punchlines smell like mothballs. You don’t need a questionnaire to know that.

Like the other female-centric shows of the moment, Are You There, Chelsea? suffers from maladies of form and content. It isn’t as if Laura Prepon and Whitney Cummings and Kat Dennings aren’t funny. When Cummings dresses up as a naughty nurse and forces her boyfriend to fill out hospital forms, when Kat Dennings says "I’m dead inside" with a pouty poker face, when Prepon tells her roommate her cat’s name is Assface: this shit is completely capable of drawing laughs. But the laugh track, so useful in the 90s as a tool for underscoring the most quotable lines of Friends and Seinfeld, now murders humor with Dexter-like efficiency. Women are funny, and there’s no need to devote one article after another to that astounding fact, but in order to move forward, ladies need to ditch decaying sitcoms in favor of something that serves them better.

Molly O'Brien is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Burlington. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Pulp Fiction. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.