Netflix nurtures writing talent
Earlier this week, SVoD platform Netflix announced the launch dates for a raft of scripted shows. Among them is season four of Orange is the New Black (OITNB), which will premiere on Friday June 17. With Netflix now in so many countries around the world, the series is likely to be one of the global TV highlights of the year.
Adapted from Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, this acutely observed comedy-drama tells the story of a 30-something PR executive who unexpectedly winds up in a women’s prison.
While no one really has a clue how the show does in terms of ratings, it is widely regarded as a success story for Netflix (based on fan adulation, critical acclaim and an 8.3 rating on IMDb).
The TV series is written by Jenji Kohan, whose career credits read like a millennial generation dinner-party discussion.
In the 1990s, she wrote a handful of episodes for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Boston Common, Mad About You and Sex and the City – though her biggest gig at the time was Tracey Takes On. Lift off came during the last decade when she had a lengthy association with Gilmore Girls, a brief flirtation with Will & Grace and, most significantly, created dark comedy Weeds, which ran for eight seasons (102 episodes) on premium pay TV network Showtime.
Weeds told the story of Nancy Botwin, a widowed mother of two boys who begins selling marijuana to support her family after her husband dies suddenly of a heart attack. As creator, writer and executive producer of that show, Kohan firmly established her reputation as one of the US market’s most talented comedy drama writers.
OITNB plays in a similar space – an area Kohan is clearly drawn to. In a 2013 interview, she said: “I’m always looking for those places where you can slam really disparate people up against one another, and they have to deal with each other. There are very few crossroads anymore. We talk about this country as this big melting pot, but it’s a mosaic. There’s all these pieces, they’re next to each other but they’re not necessarily mixing. I’m looking for those spaces where people actually do mix – and prison just happens to be a terrific one.”
OITNB was an immediate hit when it launched in the US in July 2013, and also proved popular with European audiences. Its appeal was reflected during the 2014 award season, when the show was nominated for 12 Emmys and Kohan was named one of Time’s Most Influential People.
The latter may seem a strange accolade for a TV writer, but there’s a general acknowledgement that the show moved the dial on how the LGBT community is portrayed on screen and perceived in wider society.
While OITNB remains her primary project, Kohan has an overall deal with Lionsgate TV (which backed her on both this show and Weeds). Under this arrangement she made a pilot called The Devil You Know for HBO.
Co-written by Kohan, Bruce Miller and Tracy Miller, the pilot was a provocative period drama set around the times of the Salem Witch Trials in 17th century New England. There’s not much in the public domain about the show but the lack of any additional news suggests it might not have got past the pilot stage – though there’s no confirmation of this. (Click here to see a video of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s James Marsden talking about his role in the programme.)
Among new Netflix drama titles that look interesting is Stranger Things, which premieres globally on July 15.
In this eight-hour series, a young boy vanishes into thin air. As friends, family, and local police search for answers, they are drawn into a mystery involving top-secret experiments, terrifying supernatural forces and one very strange little girl. Set in 1980s Indiana, it stars movie icon Winona Ryder and is written by twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer.
The Duffer twins are currently on a very rapid upwards trajectory. They first caught the industry’s attention in 2011 when, straight from college, they had numerous studios competing for their horror script Hidden. That was ultimately made into a movie by Warner Bros, released in September last year. In the meantime, they also became involved in M Night Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines, working on episodes five, six, nine and 10. With Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers will also be directing and showrunning.
Another new Netflix title sure to attract a lot of attention is Baz Luhrmann’s music-driven drama The Get Down, which focuses on 1970s New York City: “broken down and beaten up, violent, cash strapped – dying.”
According to Netflix, the six-parter is “a mythic saga of how New York at the brink of bankruptcy gave birth to hip-hop, punk and disco – told through the lives and music of the south Bronx kids who changed the city, and the world, forever.”
Luhrmann’s creative team includes Oscar-winning designer Catherine Martin, hip-hop historian and writer Nelson George and writer Stephen Adly Guirgis.
To date, Guirgis is best known as a playwright, having won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for drama for Between Riverside and Crazy. His involvement in this new project reflects a trend of stage writers moving to television.
However, he does have a few screenwriting credits to his name, including an episode of NYPD Blue from 2002 and a couple of short-lived dramas called Big Apple (CBS) and UC: Undercover (NBC). He is also an actor, having appeared in movies such as Birdman. A regular feature on Broadway, Guirgis’s intimate knowledge of New York is sure to be a big benefit to Luhrmann’s Netflix show.