Devon Shepard met Jenji Kohan, the creator of “Orange Is the New Black” and “Weeds,” twenty-four years ago, when they were writers for the NBC sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Shepard, a former standup comedian, got into the business serendipitously, after he clowned on a square producer at a black barbershop in Los Angeles. Kohan, who had recently graduated from Columbia, was a rung down from Shepard—a “baby writer,” in Hollywood lingo. But “she was fun, a whole lot of energy, a sponge,” he said. Kohan wanted to learn dominoes—the “loud and outrageous” street version—and they began playing bones in an office they shared, trading stories about growing up black in South Central and Jewish in Beverly Hills. “I made the room cool,” Shepard said. “People were, like, ‘What’s going on in there?’ ”
This was in 1993, a year after the L.A. riots, and at “Fresh Prince,” which starred Will Smith as a Philly street kid sent to live with rich relatives, the writers’ room was a toxic mess. The staff—which included Smith’s bodyguard and his cousin—kept crazy hours and fought non-stop. There were cruel pranks: someone peed in a colleague’s bottle of tequila. Kohan was one of two female writers, and the only white woman. Her nickname was White Devil Jew Bitch. Shepard was one of her few allies.
After “Fresh Prince,” they lost touch. In the mid-nineties, he wrote for “MADtv,” and she wrote for “Tracey Takes On . . . ”—wild, subversive sketch shows. Then, in 2004, Shepard’s agent handed him a script for a cable series about a pot-dealing single mother. One character, a black supplier named Conrad Shepard, echoed elements of Devon Shepard’s life story: Devon had dealt weed, even while working on “Fresh Prince.” He loved the script, which had no writer’s name on it, and told his agent, “I gotta be on this show.” The agent asked him if he knew the creator: Jenji Kohan. Shepard said, “Do I fucking know her? If your white ass don’t put me in the room, I’m gonna choke the shit out of you.”
Shepard wrote for “Weeds” for three years. Kohan was a dream boss, he said, because she was just as curious, energetic, and easily bored as she had been on “Fresh Prince.” “Jenji has A.D.D.,” he said. “It was like having a class clown as your boss.” The writers played hours of online poker, and to open things up Kohan issued weird challenges: “She would say, ‘I want you to end each scene with a curse word and then start with a curse word.’ Or ‘Have someone hold a cup, and then have a cup go through the whole episode.’ ” Shepard was used to being pigeonholed; at job interviews, he was told, “If we add a black character, we’ll call you.” Although, to his frustration, many people thought that he was responsible for the black dialogue on “Weeds,” he actually wrote more scenes for the white main character, who was played by Mary-Louise Parker. Kohan wrote for all the characters, including Conrad and Heylia, another African-American supplier. In Shepard’s view, empathy and talent outweighed identity. Outsiders could sometimes take bigger risks, because they were less constrained by the burdens of representation. “The person inside the party is always going to have a different perspective than a person looking in the window,” he said.
To break up the monotony, he and Kohan playacted an imaginary TV show called “Djembe,” about an African man who was married to a white suburban woman. The gag eventually made it into an episode. The premise was that Djembe couldn’t speak, and communicated by banging on a drum. “You would have thought we were all fucking crazy and racist,” Shepard said, cracking up at the memory. “We were just so free.”
Shepard, who is now an executive producer of “Legends of Chamberlain Heights,” on Comedy Central, was thrilled to witness Kohan’s breakout. He knew that she’d “gone through hell” for years after “Fresh Prince.” Shepard told me, “Here was Jenji’s problem. And I mean this in a good way. She’s a weirdo, and a nerd, and all these things. You can’t just put that kind of person in any fucking room. She had to be a showrunner! She had to be in charge. Anything else would put that fire out.”
Kohan has a story that she likes to tell about Shepard. “I remember Devon coming into the writers’ room,” she said. “He yelled, ‘I can write a motherfucking “Frasier”! But they will never let me.’ That sticks with me so vividly.”
We were in the back yard of the house that “Weeds” built, having drinks by a fire pit. Kohan and her husband, Christopher Noxon, bought the airy, sprawling estate, in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, during the show’s fourth season, four years before she created “Orange Is the New Black” for Netflix, establishing herself as a rarity: a two-hit auteur. “Weeds” was Kohan’s payoff after a dozen years of frustration, but it began as one of many scattershot pitches—desperate attempts to jump from network to cable, to “trade money for freedom,” as she saw it. Her pitch was only four words: “suburban widowed pot-dealing mom.” But the series lasted eight seasons, garnering twenty Emmy nominations and two wins.
As “Weeds” was ending, “Orange Is the New Black,” an adaptation of a memoir by a Smith-educated Wasp who went to prison, became Kohan’s off-ramp. The two shows share a sensibility. As Kohan put it, “I’m fascinated by people interacting with the Other—forced to interact with people they’d never have to deal with in their day-to-day lives.” Her specialty is exploring “crossroads,” which are often found in underground economies. “Attraction or repulsion, it’s great for drama,” she said. “It’s something that interests me in my life. I want to meet all sorts of people, not to live in my bubble. And, right now, the world is just ‘Everyone back to their corners.’ ” In the Trump era, Kohan sees an urge to hunker down with one’s own, “to just put your loudspeaker up and say, ‘This is me, and this is my world view, and I don’t want to know from yours.’ ”
Kohan and Noxon, a freelance writer who is also what the couple calls the “domestic first responder,” bought the house from a family who’d been wiped out by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. The place spills over with Kohan’s finds from thrift shops—she described her scavenging habit, which she developed in her teens, as “a treasure hunt, urban archeology.” She owns Berrie figurines, trivets, vintage spectacles, polyurethane grapes (“my vineyard”). The house, with its screening room and its back-yard “art barn,” has something in common with Kohan’s shows, emphasizing zestful world-creation over beige tidiness. It’s also the warm family space that she longed for. Marriage wasn’t a goal, but she always knew that she wanted kids. On the kitchen wall, there were Post-its with scrawled quotes from the kids: “Sukkot Bien!”; “Don’t get sucked into Bubbie’s nonsense.” Her son Oscar, who is twelve, lay sprawled on a sofa, watching “The Office.” His seventeen-year-old brother, Charlie, was heading to Columbia in the fall; his fifteen-year-old sister, Eliza, was in Manhattan with Noxon for the summer, doing an internship at a theatre. Kohan would join them soon, and begin shooting Season 6 of “Orange,” in Queens.
Kohan, who is forty-eight, grew up five miles from the Los Feliz house, on a street just inside the zoning boundary for Beverly Hills schools. Her father is Buz Kohan, who was known (at least inside their family) as the King of Variety. A TV writer from the Bronx, he moved to L.A. to write for “The Carol Burnett Show,” and came to occupy a Hollywood niche, working on such specials as “Gene Kelly: An American in Pasadena” and “Night of 100 Stars.” Her mother, Rhea, published two dark comic novels around 1980. Jenji’s twin brothers, Jono and David, are five years older. Although Jenji entered the industry first, David had the first hit: in 1998, he created “Will & Grace,” with his writing partner Max Mutchnick. According to Kohan, whenever she has a speaking event her mother always asks the same question: “How much of your success do you attribute to genetics?”
When I visited Kohan, she had bright-pink hair that was fluffed out like a dandelion. She wore cat-eye glasses coated in glitter; her dress was navy blue and covered with tiny white swans. She’s a warm conversationalist but also a moody one, suspicious of cant, with an almost self-destructive refusal to defer to the diplomatically empty idioms of the media-trained television executive—she’d rather tell a story that makes her look bad, if it’s true or funny. She’s somehow cocky and humble at once. When people praise her neon-funky style, her reflex is to quote her mother, who told her, “If you can’t fix it, decorate it.” With little rancor, Kohan explained that her mother was sexist: she liked boys better, told Kohan that women were inherently less funny, and delivered lines like “I’ll buy you those expensive jeans when you’re thinner.” When Kohan was a teen-ager, Rhea dragged her to several plastic surgeons, but Kohan refused to undergo any procedures. Rhea once offered her uppers from a shoebox. When Kohan asked her how old they were, she snapped, “They’re pills, not cheese!” (Rhea denies this.)
Kohan’s childhood had gilded streaks: Gene Kelly appears in her bat-mitzvah photographs. After she argued to a teacher that a Michael Jackson lyric could be read various ways, her father helped her get a supportive affidavit from the pop star, whom he’d met while working on a Jackson 5 special. In Kohan’s telling, she was an eccentric, perpetually unsatisfied child who became furious whenever anyone tried to shut down her right to free speech—she felt patronized by adults. She described her brothers as wild boys, “dirty and open,” who enjoyed corrupting their kid sister. The twins turned their mom’s “Hawaiian modern” home into the neighborhood party house. “They’d show Super 8 pornos on the wall,” Kohan said. “They had a band, Midnight Fantasy, and their bassist had pot.” One day, an arms dealer who lived down the street threatened to kill the bass player, who, he said, had gotten his son into drugs. Rhea told the bass player to flush his stash. At family dinners, Jenji was silent, lest she get knocked down in the brutal style of a writers’ room: David told me that whenever Jenji ventured a joke he’d shoot back, “Is that an example of fifth-grade humor?”
Despite Kohan’s upbringing, show business wasn’t a given. She applied for a job in a writers’ room mainly because a boyfriend told her that she couldn’t get one. “He said I had more of a chance of getting into Congress than I did of writing for TV!” she said. What followed was a dozen years of stunted ambition and Hollywood sexism. She had her “tit grabbed”; her name was taken off a script. Once, when she was pregnant and about to have a job interview, her agent advised her to wear a big shirt and eat candy, so that the showrunner would think she was just fat. After a pitch meeting for “The Larry Sanders Show,” her agent told her that the show’s star, Garry Shandling, wasn’t comfortable working with women. “I was fired from everything,” Kohan said. One boss let her go with “some horrible sports analogy,” like “ ‘You bring in the home run, but we need a team player every day.’ ” In 2003, CBS picked up her pilot “The Stones,” a sitcom about divorced parents, but studio executives didn’t trust her, she said, so they put David and his partner in charge. The show lasted six episodes and wrecked the siblings’ relationship for years.
Kohan did end up writing for an astonishing array of network hits, among them “Friends,” “Mad About You,” and “Gilmore Girls,” along with HBO’s “Sex and the City” and a few not-great sitcoms where she had good bosses, such as Peter Tolan, who was “an asshole to the right people.” But throughout it all, desperate to oversee her own show and control her hours, she wrote more than fifteen pilots. She married Noxon in 1997 and gave birth to Charlie two years later, and even female-run sets, she found, were often unfriendly to parents. She wanted a career like that of her role model, the British comedian Tracey Ullman, a dazzling talent who headed a healthy room, and who was “funny and smart and civilized” but also “a good mom with a fun marriage.”
Finally, in 2004, Showtime bought “Weeds.” But even that was a fight. “Weeds” was a dirty, strange comedy about a young widow, Nancy Botwin, who becomes a drug dealer in Agrestic, a fictional California suburb. In the aftermath of “The Sopranos” and “The Shield,” Kohan forged an antiheroine in a feminine shape: Nancy was a shoe-craving, manipulative milf, whose race and class lent her entrée to sub-rosa worlds. “Weeds” was kinky on multiple levels, freely merging comedy and drama; it also had a racial baldness that rubbed some viewers the wrong way. Several of the characters were inspired by friends Kohan had made while playing dominoes on the Venice boardwalk, in the years after “Fresh Prince”: a cadre of older black and Latino men, including former basketball players and drug dealers. During the O.J. trial, Kohan told me, the guys on the boardwalk “would be, like, ‘Motherfucker is guilty’—and then the police would walk by and they would be, ‘No justice, no peace!’ ”
Her bosses didn’t really get “Weeds”: Lionsgate came on board to produce the show after Showtime bought the concept, and the executives, especially Bob Greenblatt, were uncomfortable with its twisted morality. Greenblatt sent Kohan endless script notes. “I’d write back, note by note, for pages,” she said. “Finally, he wrote back a short e-mail that just said, ‘Fine, do what you want.’ . . . And I took it as carte blanche.” There was another problem, one she learned to work around, mostly by using a “talent whisperer” who still works for her: for much of the show’s run, she was barely on speaking terms with its star, Mary-Louise Parker. Once, Parker threw a script at Kohan, shouting, “My mother can’t watch this!” Kohan shot back, “I don’t write it for your mother.” (Parker could not be reached for comment.)
Despite such tensions, “Weeds” was a hit, and although it never got the acclaim that some prestige-cable bigs did, it had its own sticky allure, a rude verve and a destabilizing female protagonist long before “Girls” or “Scandal,” and a portrait of drug dealing before “Breaking Bad.” In the final seasons, the plot took risks that it couldn’t sustain; Kohan began hunting for a fresh project—and when she optioned “Orange Is the New Black” it developed so fast that the two shows overlapped. “I always love the new baby,” she told me regretfully.
“Orange,” which Netflix released in 2013, was based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, who went to prison, in Connecticut, for crimes that she committed with her ex-girlfriend, a heroin smuggler. The book was muted, with unintrusive portraits of Piper’s fellow-inmates. Kohan saw an opportunity for bawdier, more bravura storytelling, with women of every background, sexual identity, and ethnicity shoved into close proximity. Like Nancy Botwin, Piper was a rich white female criminal. But what was revelatory was the world around her: dozens of brown and black faces, fat inmates and butch dykes, old women with wrinkles and paunches—a cast of female unknowns who on other shows would be no more than extras. In Kohan’s universe, they would get to be loud, to be funny, to get naked, to have sex without being beautiful, and to be at the story’s center. The trans actress Laverne Cox played the trans inmate Sophia Burset, a year before Jill Soloway created “Transparent.”
“Orange” shared with “Weeds” a volatile blend of comedy and drama—a dilemma for the Emmys, which, from year to year, gave “Orange” nominations in different categories. A series that released entire seasons at once, it was included in Netflix’s début launch of original content, back when streaming was an experimental model. Because the show was comedic, female, and sex-centered, critics found it easy to patronize: the Times snootily compared it to “Gossip Girl.” But, like “The Wire,” “Orange” was a game changer, courting empathy and discomfort, titillation and sobs, often in the same scene. It was a soapbox for policy debates—about prison privatization, solitary confinement, mental illness—but it was allergic to pedantry. The emphasis was on the individual; extended flashbacks, in the manner of “Lost,” provided psychological context for both inmates and guards. The theme, in Kohan’s words, was: “You are not your crime.”
At the fire pit, Kohan said that she was thinking of quitting TV. She might let her hair go gray; she wanted to travel; working on such painful material was depressing. (“Why didn’t I write this Hawaii show?” she moaned the next day, in her office. “I’ve not been smart personally about taking this shit on.”) She’d recently had a setback: HBO had rejected a pilot that she’d co-written about witches, directed by Gus Van Sant, called “The Devil You Know,” which she had imagined as a kind of “Inglourious Basterds of Salem”—the coven would win. Worse, her kids were leaving home. Even Oscar, whom she called “my surprise ‘Weeds’ baby,” was turning twelve. “Showrunning is like a pie-eating contest, where the prize is more pie,” she told me, quoting a friend, and added that she and Shonda Rhimes have scheduled a lunch to discuss such feelings. (This was a month before Rhimes ordered a fresh batch of pies, cutting a major deal with Netflix.) Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men” and a friend of Kohan’s, had recently texted her photos of Paris, where he was filming a new show, and it made her ache. “He has written himself into Paris, and I have written myself into prison,” she said. She emphasized that her suffering wasn’t remotely comparable to that of someone who is incarcerated. Nevertheless, she said, “my daily thoughts are of injustice and of horror, and I do have certain regrets about it.”
Kohan’s fantasies of retirement, however, contradicted nearly everything else that she told me. “Orange Is the New Black,” which had an ambitious but flawed fifth season, was about to begin its sixth year of production—her first script was due, and she was contractually obligated for seven seasons. Meanwhile, she’d been pitching as madly as she had before “Weeds,” experimenting with godmothering projects for her writers. Her first such collaboration, “GLOW,” a playful Netflix show about female wrestlers, would début that week, on June 23rd. It was created by Carly Mensch, from “Weeds,” and Liz Flahive, from “Nurse Jackie,” but it was a very Kohan concept, with a neon-bright, polyglot female ensemble.
Kohan was also co-writing a “Teen Jesus” pilot—a kind of “Wonder Years” about the Saviour—in collaboration with Mensch’s husband, Latif Nasser, a Canadian radio producer who is a secular Muslim. “I like that the Jew and the Muslim are writing the script,” she joked. She was trying to sell “American Princess,” a rom-comish pilot, by the actress and comedian Jamie Denbo, about a socialite who joins a Renaissance Faire. And Kohan was seeking a buyer for “Backyards,” about Latino punk teens, which had been conceived by Carolina Paiz, a writer on “Orange.” Kohan had other ideas, too, including a bilingual show about a family-owned Korean spa, and another about an L.A. family that goes globe-trotting.
She couldn’t explain why she was both contemplating quitting and levelling up to the role of super-showrunner, in the tradition of Rhimes and Ryan Murphy. But she could define what had driven her this far. “I finally found a word for it,” Kohan said. “Have you ever seen ‘Chef’s Table’?” The show, on Netflix, had an episode about a woman, from a family of fish distributors, whose relatives told her that women couldn’t make sushi. “And she’s the foremost female sushi chef in the world!” Kohan exclaimed, grinning. “She said, ‘There’s a term in Japanese, kuyashii.’ And she said, ‘It means, “I’ll show you.” ’ ”
A few years ago, Kohan bought the Hayworth Theatre, near Los Angeles’s MacArthur Park, a run-down revival theatre where she used to see movies with her mom. Rumor had it, she said, that the theatre had been owned by Rita Hayworth’s father, and when I told her that this sounded glamorous she reminded me of Hayworth’s story by cracking, “Well, he probably fingered her in every room in the place.”
Three years ago, Linda Brettler, an architect who is married to Matthew Weiner, began renovations. The result is a spectacular set of offices, with one floor for production and two for post-production. (There’s also a nursery, complete with toys and a changing table.) Kohan is thinking of turning the old auditorium into a venue for performances, like the L.A. institution Largo. The new neighborhood was an adjustment. “Someone shit in our doorway the first time we moved in,” Kohan told me. “They stole my mailbox. They stole the mezuzah! We just keep cleaning it up.” As for the mezuzah, she joked, “It’s puzzling. Maybe they thought, Oh, this is the Jews’ magic thing.”
Next to Kohan’s office, with its loft bed and its framed African-American alphabet cards (“ ‘S’ is for Soul Sister”), is the “Orange” writers’ room. When I visited, the place looked like an artsy preschool crossed with a rehab center: there was a “comfort sweater” for anyone who felt vulnerable, plus a long table piled with markers, coloring books, and Kinetic Sand, along with such self-help books as “The Five Love Languages” and a memoir by the prison activist Susan Burton. Plot points for Season 6 were scribbled all over the walls. Kohan oversees each script, but her co-producer, Tara Herrmann, often runs the room. Although Kohan has never been given a diagnosis of A.D.D., she gets why Devon Shepard used that description. “I have a hard time focussing,” she told me. “That’s why the toys are there—so I have something to color.”
Almost all the writers are new. Last season, Kohan and Herrmann acknowledge, went somewhat pear-shaped. Season 4 had ended on a heartbreaking note: a key character, the black lesbian Poussey Washington, a gentle iconoclast with prospects for a life after prison, was killed by an inexperienced white guard. A riot broke out. Season 5 traced the riot: thirteen episodes covered three tumultuous days, during which a set of African-American characters, led by Poussey’s friend Taystee (the wonderful Danielle Brooks), tried to negotiate for improvements in the prison. The season ended strong, and it made daring structural leaps—one of Kohan’s trademarks on “Weeds”—but it felt coarser, too, and more violent, with slack midseason pacing that led some viewers to stop watching.
Kohan and Herrmann described the problem in similar terms. “We had lost a bunch of the original writers,” Herrmann said. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was just a new dynamic—people were attached to the characters as viewers, not as creators.” Kohan described some plots as “fan fiction.” She often spoke, with nostalgia, of the show’s “O.G. writers,” among them Nick Jones and Sian Heder, who now worked on “GLOW,” and Lauren Morelli, who had her own Netflix deal. After Season 5, only two writers were rehired.
The new crew included sitcom veterans, a playwright, a refugee from the procedural “Bones,” and a novelist, Merritt Tierce, whom Kohan met at MacDowell, the artists’ retreat in New Hampshire. (Kohan meant to write fiction, and instead rewatched “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” a quirky, genre-blending cult series that was one of her formative influences.) Many of the writers had crazy interview stories: Kohan is infamous for asking inappropriate questions. Years ago, after reading a twisted writing sample from Morelli, Kohan asked her, “So, were you interfered with?” Morelli, unsure that she was hearing correctly, looked to Herrmann, who clarified: “She means ‘Were you molested?’ ” (Morelli wasn’t.) “I tend to be an id,” Kohan told me.
Kohan, who is not on Twitter, received some scorn on the social network after a photograph of the Season 5 writers’ room, showing mostly white faces, was posted. The new room was more than three-quarters female, and included a gay man, an Indian-Canadian woman, an African-American man, a Guatemalan woman, and an Asian-American female writer’s assistant. There were no straight white men. Kohan is resistant to all such accounting; she refuses to cheerlead for numerical diversity. Writing, she argues, is an occult skill, a gift of invention and empathy, which few people possess and which can be nurtured but not taught.
It’s a perverse irony that “Orange,” which was initially hailed as a progressive breakthrough—a show that celebrated the stories of poor inmates, many of color—got caught up in a tense conversation about racial representation behind the camera. Ryan Murphy, the creator of such shows as “American Horror Story,” now promises viewers that women will direct half of a season’s episodes. There’s a swell of criticism directed at shows about black people that were created by white people—most recently, “Confederate,” an if-the-South-had-won-the-Civil-War fantasy that HBO is developing. Kohan bristles at such debates. Speaking of TV hiring, she acknowledged that “there is a close circle in terms of getting access, if you’re outside of the clique.” She continued, “There should be an effort made. But, in the end, I just want talent.” She told me a Hollywood legend about Redd Foxx firing the white writers for “Sanford and Son,” and then, upon reading a new script, yelling, “Bring me my Jews! Bring me my Jews!”
“If there’s one thing I believe, it’s against fundamentalism,” she told me. She doesn’t care if her characters are likable; she believes that the friction of offensiveness can push a debate forward. Kohan herself has a variety of impolite opinions. We debated whether the situation of Rachel Dolezal—the white activist who presented herself as black—might be analogous to transgender politics. At another point, Kohan argued that, if we are not our crimes, this is true for sex offenders, too, including Donuts, a guard on “Orange.” “Is he a rapist and that’s all he is?” she said. When asked about the notorious 2004 lawsuit that exposed crass behavior by the writers of “Friends,” Kohan said that there’s no point in suing a writers’ room: “You just have to quit the job.” (Her argument was mainly pragmatic, she added. In Hollywood, writing a new pilot reinvents you.) Over lunch one day, the writers discussed Bill Cosby’s trial; Kohan was largely quiet, but eventually chimed in, “I wonder if people are having trouble now enjoying”—infinitesimal pause—“Jell-O pudding products.”
She rolls her eyes at feminist talk of “the male gaze.” Although she and Jill Soloway, the creator of “Transparent,” have a long history, their artistic philosophies split at the root: it’s notable that Soloway’s company is called Topple, for “topple the patriarchy,” and Kohan’s is called Tilted. Three years ago, when Soloway was launching a “transaffirmative-action program” for her writers’ room, they sparred on a panel that I moderated; Kohan said that trans people had been interviewed by her staff, but insisted that a great writer can channel any identity. Years later, although Kohan’s values hadn’t budged, she had to admit that Soloway’s diversity effort had paid off, launching the trans writer Our Lady J, who was behind last year’s best episode of “Transparent.” Both showrunners are feminist provocateurs, but Kohan relishes being a mischief-maker and, sometimes, a smutty ringmaster. She gleefully lobbies performers for more nudity. Once, she told me, she wanted a shy actor to do a full-frontal scene; her producer, who was reluctant to ask the man, convinced Kohan that the guy had a forked penis.
Uncharacteristically for a modern cable impresario, Kohan has little interest in anything “cinematic,” barring occasional flourishes. (Each “Weeds” season finale echoed the style of a famous director: Tarantino, Hitchcock, Almodóvar.) In an era in which Jane Campion and Steven Soderbergh make TV, Kohan told me, “This isn’t a director’s medium! It’s not auteur territory. I’m the auteur in television.” She’d come from sitcom rooms, not indie-movie sets, she said, and she wanted faces, and enough coverage to edit, not fancy tracking shots.
Kohan has a deep, occasionally prickly aversion to even a hint of censorship, which goes back to her childhood. In fifth grade, she wrote a play in which an Asian character brought Sleeping Beauty a gift of egg foo yong. The white boy playing the Asian role improvised slanty eyes, leading a Chinese-American teacher to cancel the play. “And I went crazy,” Kohan said. “Yes—it’s totally offensive! But he was also nine or ten. If you want to have a cultural-sensitivity discussion, great. But to say, ‘You’re bad, you offend me, this play cannot go on’—fuck you. Then I was supposed to write a letter of apology, and I refused.” Her mom backed her. Kohan described her attitude on these issues as old-school, “very A.C.L.U.”
And yet “Orange” has itself reflected the shifting Zeitgeist on race and power, responding with humanity and nuance. In 2012, when “Orange” began production, prison reform was a bipartisan movement. By Season 4, Black Lives Matter had become prominent; Season 6 may make references to Trump’s ascent. Like “Weeds,” “Orange” has grown bleaker each year; the show has developed a caustic clarity about systemic racism, prison privatization, and the sadism of guards. (Piper Kerman complained, Kohan told me, that the show’s guards were unrealistically kind.) “Orange” was not one privileged prisoner’s story, Kohan said, and that had never been the aim: “I like an ensemble. It’s gluttony—I like a little piece of this, a little piece of that.” The show’s broad sympathies, its willingness to explore every perspective, have alienated some viewers: some were unwilling to get inside the head of Healy, the bigoted white male counsellor; others, especially some African-American female viewers, saw Poussey’s death as trauma porn. Kohan was rankled by some of these critiques, but she’s willing to poke bruises: “Good, go and argue about it.”
As Piper receded into the ensemble of “Orange,” another character, Taystee, took center stage. A bubbly jokester in the first season, Taystee eventually became the acting secretary for the warden, Joe Caputo. Poussey’s death radicalized her, however; suddenly, she could see how her white boss’s “niceness” had blinded her—in a crisis, his sympathy went to the man who killed her friend. Kohan told me that these shifts simply followed the story. “This is going to sound woo, but I’m from L.A.,” she said. “Things have a destiny, and you want to see them fulfill their destiny. We don’t go in saying, ‘How are we going to deal with the black characters?’ We say, ‘What are we going to do with Taystee or Janae?’ ” Kohan was intent on dramatizing how power worked, but she was also resolute about character being key: “Otherwise, it’s an issues class. It’s an entertainment, and you have to be mindful of that.”
While I was visiting Kohan’s office, she met with executives from Amazon. Lifetime had delayed in picking up “American Princess,” the Renaissance Faire show, and Kohan wanted to shop it elsewhere. Netflix, Amazon, Facebook—she’s open to all comers. As they discussed “Princess” and Kohan talked up her many protégées, Tara Herrmann, the “Orange” co-producer, noted that Kohan gets bored in the later seasons of her shows.
“I like giving birth,” Kohan said, shrugging.
“Literally and figuratively,” Herrmann said.
Kohan pitched her idea of a show about a Korean spa, which she hoped to write with a Korean partner. It would touch on themes of immigration, she said—not just the Korean family who owns the place but the Latino employees who clean it.
“A lot of nudity,” Joe Lewis, Amazon’s head of comedy, drama, and V.R., remarked.
Yes, Kohan said. She described visiting a Korean spa in Queens that was very “accepting,” with people “every color under the sun” in hot tubs on the roof. One time, she’d seen “Orthodox boys from Monsey,” in upstate New York, ogling women in bikinis.
Lewis emphasized that Amazon, as a global company, was seeking diverse, experimental voices and was eager to acquire shows set in other countries. Earlier in the meeting, Kohan had mentioned her concept about a family that travels around the world. Lewis looped back to it. “The travel thing—if you wanted to do it, we would do it today,” he said.
“Really?” Kohan said. “I have all the characters, and I have a beginning, and I have a secret that we’re not telling the audience.”
“The answer is yes,” Lewis said.
“All right, I gotta get out of the ‘Orange’ swamp,” she said.
Negotiations were soon in progress—it was a show for her to do a few years from now, another off-ramp. Retirement would have to wait.
The next day, June 22nd, Kohan went to the doctor, to get beta-blockers for the première of “GLOW.” Later, as we entered an unfancy nail salon, she said, “I have trouble taking care of myself.” But by the time of the screening she had gone glam: her nails were a color called Hologram, and she strutted the pink carpet in a blousy peasant dress in rainbow colors. After the show, Kohan, accompanied by Charlie and Oscar, headed to the première party. It was an especially exciting night for Oscar, who has a cameo in the pilot, as a tween thug who screams, “Fuck you, Nancy Reagan!” It was also the first time that Kohan’s sons had attended one of her professional events—normally, her wingman was her daughter, Eliza. At dinner the previous night, Charlie had told me that he didn’t love “Orange”—in fact, he’d dropped it midway through Season 2. “I had a problem with Piper—I didn’t like her,” he said. “And there was this way that every time it got dramatic it would go the other way. I thought it sold itself out.”
“You’re one of those,” his mother told him fondly. She complains that when men tell her that they like the show they inevitably add, “I watch it with my girlfriend.” Eliza was the family’s “Orange” superfan.
Before the screening, Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive gave a speech thanking “Mama Jenji.” Mensch was postpartum, just as Kohan had been for the “Weeds” première. Afterward, Charlie was sweet to his mom, knowing that it had been hard for her to cede control, to be the one giving notes that got ignored. “I could see your touch on it,” he said.
The “GLOW” party was decorated like a neon locker room from the eighties. “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” played on the loudspeakers. As Kohan mingled, I chatted with two of her O.G. “Orange” crew, the filmmaker Sian Heder and the playwright Nick Jones. They marvelled at their early, disorienting days under Kohan: she had everyone build ornate Lego models of prisons and go on extended hikes. Even after they broke the story for Season 1, they struggled. “One script would be like ‘30 Rock,’ another like ‘The Shield,’ ” Heder said. Heder felt especially anxious about writing a script that centered on Sophia Burset, the trans inmate. Every activist she called told her that it was a huge mistake to portray a trans character as a prisoner—at the very least, she should be innocent. Kohan encouraged Heder to stop soliciting outside opinions: she needed to write.
“Sian certainly voiced those concerns,” Kohan told me later. “They all did. Her name was going to be on it, and trans was becoming a hot-button thing. But you can’t be a totem and a person at the same time. I just kept saying, ‘This is the character, this is the person. This is this trans person.’ The message is: You gotta be fearless. If you get too wishy-washy and try to serve too many masters, you get nothing. You write in a vacuum and you hope it works.”
“She buys people’s complete collections of things!” Eliza complained to me. She was sitting on a space-age chair in the family’s new apartment, in the West Village. “We have a room filled with a collection of Eight Balls—”
“Those Eight Balls were collected over time,” Kohan said.
“All those marbles. You did not collect those marbles.”
“I bought jars of marbles from all different places,” Kohan said, calmly. “That’s why they’re in all different jars. It’s a collection of jars of marbles. It’s not a collection of marbles.” She is a maximalist, she said: “Look, I feel better when there’s bulk. I think bulk is beautiful. I love a lot of something.”
Kohan adores Los Angeles, which she has gotten to know using the twin algorithms of “thrifting and food”: she and her husband sometimes drive their pit-bull mutt, Gail Feldman, to a neighborhood they’ve never visited, then explore it on foot. Right now, however, Noxon was hot for Manhattan. He and Eliza had been in the half-decorated apartment since late May, among trippy velvet sofas and coasters bearing the message “Don’t Fuck Up the Table.” Kohan, as usual, was overwhelmed by work, and shuttling between coasts: she was on deadline for her “Orange” script; she was scouting locations; she was preparing to help Mensch and Flahive get going on the room for Season 2 of “GLOW.”
Kohan and Noxon, who met at an adult kickball game, have been married for nearly twenty years. Noxon has published two books. The first was “Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up.” His second, “Plus One,” was more fraught: it was a beach read about a cable showrunner’s husband, who, feeling emasculated, acts out. Kohan wasn’t thrilled, but Noxon argued that it was his story, too. The impulse might be understandable, given the cannibalistic nature of their circle’s creativity: in addition to Weiner, they are close with Chris’s sister Marti Noxon, a TV writer whose show “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce” has a character loosely based on Chris. But, whatever stress “Plus One” generated, the family is affectionate and eccentric, with shared comic rhythms and a self-conscious fascination with the awkwardness, the flawed wokeness, of their own L.A. set.
Eliza launched into a story about a seminar on racist language at her school, which began with a PowerPoint slide that read “White People: We’re Not Always Awesome.” Her school was also fighting a trend called “area codes”: boys rate girls with three digits, for their face, body, and “DTF”-ness (politely: sexual eagerness). At a school assembly, Eliza said, a girl had declared that it was wrong to rate girls, that rating girls must stop, “and someone in the crowd said, ‘Shut up, 7!’ ”
The family exploded with laughter. “That’s the perfect number,” Kohan marvelled. “I recognize that it’s reductive and sexist,” Chris added. “But on a scientific level I admire its specificity.”
Similar stories have been worked into Kohan’s art. In a potent “Orange” flashback, Janae, back when she was a public-school student, tears up as she watches an all-white “Dreamgirls” at an élite private school—a plot inspired by a mostly white production of “The Wiz” at Eliza’s summer camp. But Trump’s election victory has made issues of race and privilege far less abstract; it was a traumatic event for all of them. Just after November, Noxon was in Memphis promoting “Plus One,” the prospect of which—as he scribbled in a sketchbook—felt “stupid” and “inconsequential.” Noxon is also an illustrator, and in a burst of energy he produced a graphic story presenting the civil-rights movement as an inspiration for the resistance. He posted it online, and it went viral. Soon, he had a new book to write, titled “Good Trouble.” He was just back from being arrested at a health-care protest in Washington, D.C.
Noxon is a Democrat, but Kohan is a registered Independent. “I’m not a Republican,” she said. “But I think the Democratic Party is a mess, in a lot of ways. And I don’t necessarily like an affiliation.” For all her aversion to being preachy, she calls her work a form of activism. “I think my ideology isn’t that fuzzy, in the things that are approached on the show—and, while I don’t have time to be an activist, I can be an agitator.” She recalled attending a Clinton Foundation meeting in which a speaker described studies showing that babies whose mothers talk to them a lot develop stronger language skills—and then told her, “You could put this in your show.” That idea was translated into Kohan’s idiom in Season 2: a prisoner whose daughter has recently given birth crudely tells her, “Talk to the baby, so she doesn’t grow up stupid.”
Matthew Weiner met Kohan more than a decade ago at the school their children attend. They became close friends, and play pinochle together with their spouses. Kohan talks Weiner off cliffs of self-doubt. “Don’t worry about running out of story,” she once told him. “There’s always more.” Kohan’s decision to burn down Agrestic, in Season 3 of “Weeds,” became Weiner’s watchword for artistic daring while writing “Mad Men”: it gave him the confidence to divorce Betty and Don, to start fresh without fear.
Weiner told me that Kohan rarely gets enough credit as a pioneer. “She’s braver than I am,” he said. “She’s a truly iconoclastic person who does not believe in B.S. She’s a deep feminist, she’s a humanist, she’s very educated, but she’s really—and so quietly, without putting her personality in front of her work—she has consistently talked about what’s fair, about race, before anybody, about the trans world before anybody. About class, about privilege!” Her gift, he said, was to write about difficult subjects without “jingoism,” with a rich sense of psychology. She was ten years ahead of everybody.
He’s also inspired by her attitude toward criticism. During “Mad Men,” he recalled, he got frustrated by “people thinking I was a sexist when I was writing about sexism.” For Kohan, however, “the white guilt, all of it, it’s all funny to her—you know, it’s just delicious to her that people are going to be upset.” They share a philosophy: that it’s crucial not to give in to the impulse of wanting to please viewers, that it’s better to take the leap that might agitate people, if it can get you to a new place.
In an e-mail, Shonda Rhimes praised Kohan’s kindness and candor, calling her one of the few showrunners with whom she can talk honestly about career strategy: “She’s the person I went to and said, ‘Tell me everything you know about Ted Sarandos’ ”—a top executive at Netflix. Rhimes had just launched “Grey’s Anatomy” when she met Kohan; she had been a “Weeds” fangirl, but when she heard about “Orange” she was “suspicious”: “It seemed to be a show about a rich white woman’s prison struggles, written by a white woman, when we know that white women are not the majority of people being victimized, forgotten, and destroyed by the prison system.” But, she went on, “the moment you watch the first episode, you know that the show is actually about women. All women . . . And there are stories told on that show from the perspectives of women of color—and trans women and lesbians—that I don’t think I’d ever seen before.”
I visited the set of “Orange” in early August. Kohan had finally finished her script, and filming was under way. She had other good news: Lifetime had green-lighted “American Princess,” the Renaissance Faire show. The previous weekend, Kohan and Noxon and two of their kids had visited upstate New York with Jamie Denbo, the show’s creator, to scout for stories at a Renaissance Festival.
“Did you see the ring that Chris bought me in Oswego?” Kohan said, holding out her hand. I peered: it resembled a melted bronze dragon. “It’s a couple giving each other oral sex. See? She’s leaning over his cock, he’s on her pussy.” Romantic, I told Kohan. “He knows me,” she said.
“Orange Is the New Black” is not “Entourage”; in Season 6, past actions have repercussions. Kohan, who calls herself a “cultural, book Jew,” takes a Talmud class, and she had been mulling over one of its themes: “How do two contradictory truths occupy the same space?” The actresses were returning from their hiatus, and they greeted Kohan effusively. Kate Mulgrew, who plays Red, the Russian cook, gave her a gift-wrapped copy of Roxane Gay’s “Hunger.” Adrienne Moore, who plays Black Cindy, talked about a recent trip to Berlin.
When Mulgrew and I talked in her dressing room, the actress, best known as Captain Janeway on “Star Trek: Voyager,” described the thrill, after a long career of “very, very little golden stuff,” of finding a creator so “unorthodox and unafraid.” Danielle Brooks, similarly, called Kohan a “dope queen.” Unlike Mulgrew, “Orange” was Brooks’s first TV job, straight out of Juilliard. In the premier episode, which begins with a shower scene, Taystee pulls off Piper’s towel, saying, “Damn, you’ve got nice titties—you’ve got them TV titties.” Brooks, who is from a Christian family in South Carolina, “prayed on it” and nearly declined the role. But she told me that she’s grown to trust Kohan, grateful for her “deep care for disenfranchised women.”
Adrienne Moore, too, grew up in a Southern, Christian family, but eventually moved to New York to study acting. (Kohan told me that she clumsily assumed that several cast members were amateurs, as with “The Wire,” until they mentioned Juilliard: “O.K., you’re a really good actress and I’m a racist.”) In Season 3, Black Cindy converted to Judaism, in a scene that was a surprise tearjerker. Kohan wrote it as comic, but Moore played it emotionally, drawing on her own history. These kinds of dynamics have shaped the show throughout its run: after the Latina actresses spoke up, the writers gave their characters specific ethnicities—and the Dominicans became distinct from the Puerto Ricans and the Mexicans. (Some performers chose to play cross-nationality: Flaca is Mexican, but is played by a Dominican-American.)
One point of contention hovered: Kohan thinks it’s realistic that black inmates would use the N-word, but the cast resisted. Moore told me that it bothers her when the word is used as racial shorthand in pop culture. Kohan told me, “You can tell when things are just not worth it. I want them to do great work and have a good experience—and they are putting their bodies out there. There are certain lines where I’m, like, ‘Just fucking say it.’ And lines where I’m, like, ‘O.K.’ ”
Kohan values rude humor to the point that she sometimes veers into the language of the right. An offensive joke, she told me, “is not going to melt you!” Cindy Holland, who green-lighted the show for Netflix, told me that, though Kohan is collaborative, she’d learned to “never give her a note on a joke, because she’ll double down.” When I expressed qualms about the jokes made by the show’s Nazi inmates, Kohan said, “I’m shocked by what comes out of people’s mouths outside a P.C. bubble. I want to represent it.” The inmates, she said, “are trying to be funny, and it’s not funny, and they think it’s hysterical—and that’s kind of a punch in the head. I like that they made you uncomfortable.” An unsettling scene should be “like a Weeble that doesn’t fall down, that just keeps tottering.”
In one of Season 3’s best gags, a cost-cutting executive at the prison describes a “Jewish problem”—too many inmates ordering expensive kosher meals—then notes that he has found a cheaper source for soap. A colleague shoots back, “Is it the Jews?” But an even better punch line follows: the employee is reported to H.R. and fired. In the private-prison industry, exploiting inmates is business as usual, but breaking a speech code is a crime. Netflix airs in Germany. Although the streaming service cleared the bit with its lawyers, Kohan was strongly urged to cut it: in Berlin, Holocaust jokes are verboten. She kept it in.
The last time I spoke to Kohan, she was finally on vacation—though not a real vacation, since she was polishing new “Orange” scripts. She was in New England, staying at Shonda Rhimes’s country house. Kohan’s plate was heaped with pie. “GLOW” had got a second-season pickup, and she was prepping for “American Princess.” Carolina Paiz’s “Backyards,” however, had hit a snag: there was a competing show about Latino teens. Kohan wanted to be supportive, but it was hard. She knew that Paiz had “spilled her guts into this thing,” but added, “I’ve spent my life building bibles for things that get tossed out—it is brutal, but it teaches you to move on.”
Mostly, however, she had been watching the Charlottesville riots. Two days earlier, Kohan had described her work to me as a cathartic rebellion within a quiet life. “It’s fun to create fireworks and see oohs and ahs,” she had said. Battle could be exhilarating, controversy was fun. Now she was rattled, finding both the Nazi marches and Trump’s response “terrifying, appalling.” She said, “I intellectually understand where these people come from—hate always comes from pain, to a certain extent. Doesn’t make it O.K.”
When I asked for her response as a free-speech absolutist, she struggled. “Right,” she said. “I never want to say that people can’t say how they feel, including their hatred.” But this was about intimidation as well as speech. “It is a call to action for the complacent, to stop letting these fringe hatemongers have the floor,” she said with emotion. “I don’t think the answer is ‘You can’t say that’—but you’re not entitled to take over city streets and start shit.” On some of her most foundational issues, she felt at sea. “I think there’s a hard line here of ‘This is unacceptable.’ So that feels uncomfortable—that isn’t something that’s in my wheelhouse, that’s not part of my world view.”
The green lights for new shows hadn’t entirely raised her spirits. “I’m a depressive, a dysthymic,” she said. “So I have to summon sunshine. I don’t come by it easily.” What she longed for was the time to wander, to observe, to collect and absorb, to “fill her tank.” She was relishing time with her kids. In her work, however, she described herself as drowning—going underwater, then up, under, then up, like a witch being dunked. We’d sat together at the Renaissance Festival, in the late afternoon, watching a dunking: torture turned into vaudeville, making tired families giggle and cheer. “I would like to find a little more pure joy!” she said, as if she were conjuring a path into the future, one she had yet to imagine. “I’m travelling in dark waters right now.” ♦