How Jenji Kohan Ruined Orange Is the New Black (for me)

image by Gigei

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with television producer Jenji Kohan for several years now. I loved the initial season of her suburban pot-themed dramedy Weeds, but the romance quickly cooled, as the show descended from lighthearted laughs into a violent, lurid soap opera. Personally, from a writing perspective, I felt she could have easily coaxed several more seasons out of the fertile original premise without embracing so many whiplash inducing plot twists, but she’s rich and famous and I’m writing this blog, so what do I know? As a consumer of her work, the final straw for me was a gleefully transgressive episode where Kevin Nealon’s character infiltrates a cultlike evangelical sect. I’m no great fan of so called “conservative Christianity,” but as a Christian myself, I felt like she was crossing lines that I couldn’t cross with her. By that time, I had already become disenchanted with the self-destructive lead character, so giving up the show was no great sacrifice.

A few years later, Jenji and I worked out our differences when the much superior Orange is the New Black premiered. Superficially similar to the late seasons of Weeds, Orange follows a young middle-class woman’s drug-related trip to prison. Raunchy, hilarious, and surprisingly heartfelt, with a strong ensemble cast, Orange was a winner. Even in the first season, however, there were still moments that set my teeth on edge, most of them revolving around the murderous evangelical meth-head and anti-abortion crusader, “Pennsatucky,” presented in the first season as a hillbilly caricature straight out of Deliverance (The Female Version).

My sense of discomfort increased when I read the true-life memoir by Piper Kerman that inspired the series. In contrast to the often cartoonish characters portrayed on the Netflix series, their real-life counterparts came across as sympathetically observed, three-dimensional human beings. Suddenly, I was no longer sure about how I felt about their names and likenesses being exploited for laughs. Then too, it became clear that the animosity towards religion was purely an invention of the show. The real Piper didn’t come across as personally religiously inclined, but her writing displayed genuine respect for the religious people she encountered and their faith.

I did decide to give the series one more chance, however, and was rewarded with the excellent second season, which truly allowed its versions of the characters to grow and develop into real people of their own. Even Season One’s Pennsatucky was allowed to show some signs of humanity (and I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the amazing work of Season Two’s Lorraine Toussaint, whose portrayal of a warmly charismatic sociopath enlivened and animated the latter half of the season).

Things came to a screeching halt for me, however, in just the fourth episode of the promising new season –and it wasn’t because of the increasingly Weeds-like self-destructive narcissism of the once appealing lead character. Rather, it was once again religion.

I had already made peace with the series’ general dislike of religion, and I might even have looked past the episode’s deliberately shocking litany of blasphemies. But what really turned me off was the self-righteous preachiness of the episode. It was like an atheist Chick tract. The message of the episode could have just as well been painted in big block letters on the wall, and that message was that religion is a dirty, bad, and oppressive superstition. Too late, I realized the bait-and-switch of the previous episodes. What I had read as the humanization of the series’ only prominent Christian characters, Pennsatucky and Sister Ingalls, turned out to be just an element of the propaganda. The price for the characters becoming real people was for them to renounce their religious beliefs.

If I do quit watching, I’m sure Jenji will neither note nor mourn my departure. I’m sure she doesn’t count on any Christians being in the target audience for her subversive, drugs-nudity-and-sex filled prison romp. As for me, I guess, I’ll just have to find something else to watch –preferably something that doesn’t insult either my intelligence or my faith.

17 Responses

  1. Maria Rey says:

    OITNB was a big favorite of mine till the episodes when Black Cindy converts to Judaism. I had nothing against that, and the first few episodes in which Black Cindy struggles with her faith were both really funny and poignant. However, I was truly upset when in one dialogue with the Jewish rabbi, he refers to her upbringing in a Christian home as “Christian filth”. So – myself and all Christians are “filth” as far as the writers of the show are concerned.

    I had been uncomfortable with several stereotypes about Christians earlier in the show, but that one was the final straw. I looked up Jenji’s religious affiliation – she is Jewish. So, here we have a person of one faith referring to those of another faith as “filth”. Wow. Have we not seen the consequences of such religious hatred over and over again on this Earth? Have we not learned anything from it? There can be no other reason for the choice of those words than pure maliciousness aimed at spewing hatred out against others.

    I won’t be watching any more of her material, and hope to get the message out to others. Poison should be left alone.

    • Ryan says:

      I am so with you! I found myself seething by the end of season three, all due to exactly what you’re talking about. I just wanted to voice how relieved I am to hear someone else say what I actually find myself irritated by when I’m not even watching the show. I’m done with everything Jenji Kohan.

  2. Harrogate says:

    You should hate-watch the above mentioned finale of season 3. It is the worst, most pretensious episode of anything I’ve ever seen. Jenji Kohan is an absolute joke.

    Her “thought” and everything she has to say is like a powerpoint presentation of contemporary platitudes. Like watching a dramatized version of an edgy undergrad’s Facebook feed.

  3. Ryan says:

    I have to say I’m with you guys on this. I’m not even a Christian, but I’m right in the middle of the finale, where I finally had to pause and Google “does Jenji Kohan hate Christians?”. I didn’t know that she’s Jewish, but even that is strange as she seems to stereotype them just as painfully so. I’m glad to hear the real Piper is not quite how the show makes her. All that said, open as I consider myself to be, I pretty much feel the exact same way you do… While I’m not swearing off the show, I wouldn’t call myself a real fan either. And should the show come up in any social setting; I’ll be the first one to voice my criticisms.

  4. Sarah says:

    I think it’s interesting to finally see a show that isn’t afraid of Christians. Most producers will not dare to say the slightest thing about Christians or Catholics because most of them feel that their faith is above any negativity, when you guys are being some of the biggest hypocrites right now. You guys bag on Jewish people, their faith and he’ll even their holidays. Christianity is always being thrown in everyone’s face–look at how everything is Christmas and when a Jewish person gets offended by it, it’s whatever, because “they’re just a minority.”
    And seriously, it’s a show. Get over it. She can’t respect everyone in the audience-there will always be someone whose offended, and God forbid that once in a lifetime it will be the Christians. You guys are taking it way to personally and if you really value your faith, you won’t let the negativity offend you. Your faith should be stronger than some crap a producer has to say in her show. It’s a joke, it’s a show, it’s not real life.

    • Chris Sunami says:

      I’m not questioning her right to make the show she wants to make, I just find it a shame that a show with so many strengths degenerated into an anti-Christian polemic. I also found it untrue to the original source material (which was originally drawn from “real life”, for whatever that’s worth).

      Again, if that’s the show she wants to make, let her make it, but she clearly doesn’t want me in her audience. You can’t deliberately offend someone and then question why that person was offended.

    • kayla says:

      you need to go educate your self on everything you mentioned being shoved in your face as christian, And educate yourself on the bible the history of Judaism, Catholicism and Christianity. If you think all the stuff bashing God and Christianity is just some joke and people offended by it are just over reacting. You are sadly the one that is a joke. There are clearly agendas being promoted in this show and its sick I am not just talking about he anti christian references. what about all the extreme stereotyping and anti family feminist movement. Is pathetic. This show was good until it was hijacked and filled with ignorance to please stupid people.

      • Chris Sunami says:

        For the record, I’m a fan of the show’s feminism, and the diverse range of characters it portrays, including a wide range of people we don’t usually see on television. This original post should be taken more in sadness than in anger.

        As a note to everyone, on both sides of this debate, please be respectful and civil, or your comments will be edited and/or deleted. We can have strong opinions about this particular show without calling each other a bunch of names.

    • Gabe says:

      Anything related to Jesus is constantly bashed and attacked in this world we don’t need our entertainment to be filled with Christian hate too. Plus that is not even close to accurate representations of christians it’s fake.

  5. Ann says:

    I’m surprised to hear she’s Jewish. I’ve only ever seen atheists be that bigoted towards Christians; pretty every TV show/movie that’s created/directed by an atheist nowadays insults all Christians and puts atheism on a pedestal.

    It would be great if someone would give atheists a taste of their own medicine and make the first and only anti-atheist TV show/movie, but I doubt that’ll ever happen. Everyone is so afraid of offending atheists, and so, atheism is always being shoved in everyone’s faces without question. (Ugh…) Also, most religious people would never stoop down to the atheists’ level and insult them the way that they insult us.
    It would at least be nice if Christians weren’t generalized and dehumanized constantly by the media…

    • Chris Sunami says:

      I can’t really agree with this. There’s plenty of mainstream TV aimed at a religious audience –as well as secular TV that doesn’t insult anyone. I just found it a shame that this particular show decided to decided to make mocking Christianity a core part of its identity.

    • That’s ridiculous, atheists are treated as if they have the plague by many so called Christians, even agnostics with questions. Being one myself, anytime I have ever vocalized a question, thought or concern I am either treated like the original outcast feeling as though it were me they want to nail to wood or patronized as though I need saving. That is dehumanizing and repugnant. Honestly, jenji kohan gets it very close to the actual day to day personalities encountered within many women’s prisons. Personally, I have always struggled with faith and religion and until I decided to be true to myself I wasn’t able to find peace. Faith isn’t for other people it’s for you to soothe your own fears and struggles who cares about the faith of others on a TV show or lack there of? It’s fiction and comedy, not your lives. This show made me smile many times that I was struggling to find laughter and that’s enough for me, I’m not going to try and interpret kohan’s beliefs from a fictional comedy.

  6. Jennifer Robins says:

    I would like to preface with the disclosure that I am racially a Jew, but lean more towards Christianity….i think? I’m having a very odd identity crisis. Anyway, I think it’s important that Christians/Gentiles opporate under a very naive assumption that we practice the same religion. We don’t. At all. It’s one thing that has made me very angry about the Jewish community, is that sanctimonious, know it all, belittling behavior that turns neighbors into enemies. One of many things. Anyway, it really grates on my nerves that satirical depictions and gross caricatures of other people’s beliefs cultures and customs are considered “bold, reflective, Progressive” except for Jewish ones. We are terrified our community will shatter to pieces if ever held up to current day scrutiny. Nothing was seen as bad when they talked about whats her face conversion, unlike everyone else. She’s a spoiled brat honestly.

  7. Paul says:

    You have to admit that Piper’s character might be pretty representative of the group she’s trying to portray. The northeast doesn’t have a lot of white upper-middle class 30-somethings who are also religious. There are probably more people with active contempt for religion, if anything.

    • Chris Sunami says:

      I don’t have an issue with any one character’s views, it’s the attitude of the show as a whole I find off-putting. To give an example, I found Big Boo’s anti-Christian rants less offensive than the revelations about the shallowness and hypocrisy of Sister Ingalls’ faith. They weren’t willing to let even a single character represent a positive Christian spirituality. The reason I blame Jenji in particular for it is that it doesn’t come from the real Piper’s original book, and it matches a similar vibe I got from “Weeds.”

  8. Grateful says:

    I was completely excited about the show and super intrigued by the vast rage of characters, but I have to say the representation of christians was absolutely sickening. I really believe that the show was absolutely anti-Christianity. How are we supposed to except one another when we depict one another in such a negative way. Loved the show until the demeaning remarks about Christianity became so prevalent.. very disappointed

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