Orange Is the New Weeds: The Adventures of Jenji Kohan Across the 8th Dimension
Are Piper Chapman and Nancy Botwin the same person? An examination of the eerie similarities between Litchfield Prison and Agrestic.
It doesn’t take a television savant to recognize the similarities between Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Showtime’s Weeds. While the former takes place in a prison in upstate New York and the latter takes place in a Southern California suburb, Michigan, Denmark, a New York City halfway house (and many, many other locales), the two brainchildren of Jenji Kohan have a lot in common. They center around two white bourgeoisie women who are the fish out of a water and love proving they can be that dehydrated fish. Both shows deal with race—a lot. And both have some notable thespian overlaps (hey there, Michael Harney, Matt Peters, Natasha Lyonne, and Pablo Schreiber).
Behind the scenes, the shows share many more points of commonality. Both Weeds and OITNB contain episodes directed by Michael Trim and Uta Briesewitz (whose contributions tie the series to disparate worlds of 30 Rock, The Wire and S Club 7). Writers Tara Herrmann and Stephen Falk contributed multiple scripts to both shows. In addition, producers Lisa Vinnecour, Jonathan Talbert, and Arturo Guzman are all veterans of Weeds who found new roles on OITNB, particularly Vinnecour, who was with Weeds from the first episode and whose name appears just ahead of creator Kohan’s in the show’s opening credits.
But in the crazy world of online fandom, murkier theories exist about the suspiciously strong ties between the two series—and for that matter, the entire boob tube ecosystem.
First, there is the Piper Chapman is Nancy Botwin theory: the two anti-hero protagonists aren't just awfully similar, but actually the same woman. Hear us out. Although 99.9 percent of former Weeds fans appear to have stopped watching the series after the third season, those of us who stuck around long enough know that Nancy does a stint in prison. But, Kohan and co. decide to jump ahead the three years Nancy spends behind bars between the end of Season Six and the start of Season Seven. Nancy appears to have served some of her hard time in the New York area because she is released to a halfway house in New York. The details about her time behind bars aren’t fantastically clear, though we do know she had a lesbian lover and—wait for it—spent a fair bit of time working in electrical duties, not unlike our Ms. Chapman. Could it be that Piper’s time at Litchfield is filling in those interim years when we never saw Nancy behind bars?
Yes, this is clearly a stretch and not all of the details match up, of course. But could we imagine Nancy’s time in prison to go down like Piper’s? You bet.
Nancy’s is the life Piper only narrowly avoided. A gentile woman, engaged to a Jewish man, with 2.5 children and a tiny box of a house exactly like the all the other ones lining the streets of Agrestic. Although her age is never explicitly stated, Nancy is not considerably older than Piper (the real Kerman went to jail at 35). The life Piper longs for, whether with Larry or Alex, might not look much different. And in terms of perception, Nancy may see life in the suburbs as a type of incarceration: At the end of the show’s third season, she burns the fictional suburb to the ground. It would not be unreasonable to assume Piper might do the same to Litchfield if given the opportunity.
And yet Piper’s is the life Nancy found. When the consequences of dealing with drug dealers became too much, Nancy Botwin cut a deal, turned on her former partners, and went to a federal penitentiary for three years. Perhaps she was the speaker behind the mysterious voice that comforted Piper Chapman in solitary confinement during the Season 1 OINTB episode “Fucksgiving”? Much like how Piper adapts to prison, fighting with Pennsatucky and ratting Alex out to her PO, Nancy emerged from the clink “institutionalized,” less emotionally conflicted about her chosen profession and able to capitalize on her experience, as Andrew Sullivan has pointed out about graduates of Crime U, launching a multimillion-dollar pot empire.
Of course, there is the catch that Nancy has always been a bit more cunning and self-centered (though not self-aware) than Piper. That brings us to the next theory: Alex Vause is Nancy during her behind-bars interim.
This actually makes more sense, at least on the surface. Nancy is curiously wearing glasses when she leaves prison, and the physical resemblance alone between her and Vause is enough to get TV conspiracy theorists salivating.
But, there are also the core personality details. It’s easy to jump on the Nancy-Piper connection because they are the two most prominent characters in each of the series. However, Alex may be Kohan’s real nod-and-a-wink to the great potlord of Agrestic. Nancy is a dealer with high standing in a drug empire, if not the one running the show a good chunk of the time. She’s no “I carried a suitcase” wimp like Piper. She’s taking big risks and making the big money—like Vause. Sure, Nancy had set some superficial boundaries in the beginning of Weeds about not dealing anything harder than pot, but we know how her cunningness can make her change her mind on a dime, just like it can with Alex. We’ve seen Nancy sell her own flesh and blood up the river more than a handful times. Would she think twice about playing a former lover to buy herself a shorter prison time? Hell, no.
Sure, Nancy has the fish-out-of-water thing going on, but that attribute often defines Piper. As a result, she seems downright doe-eyed in comparison to hard-nosed, hardscrabble Nancy and Alex. Piper risks more time in prison for memories of love, while Nancy and Alex are both willing to jettison their most intimate relationships to save themselves or, at their worst, merely make a grab for more money and power. All three women are flawed (to put it mildly), but Nancy’s and Alex’s flaws are pretty much the same.
Unlike her potential counterpart, however, Alex is unlikely to share Nancy’s proclivity for sex with men. Vause does not show any sexual or romantic interest in the male characters on OITNB (although, given the selection at Litchfield, it’s impossible to blame her), whereas Nancy is an accomplished Lotharia, bedding partners for business (Season 1’s Alejandro, played by Vincent Laresca), convenience (Season 7’s Zoya, played by Olga Sosnovska), and sometimes both (who can forget Esteban Carlos Reyes, played by the incomparable Demián Bichir). While Nancy is more fluid in her sexuality, Alex is seemingly adamant about hers.
Alex Vause also has a much more turbulent home life than Nancy. While the Botwin matriarch’s parents are never seen and only referred to obliquely, it is strongly implied that they lived a standard suburban existence. Alex is also an only child, whereas Nancy’s sister Jill, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, joined the cast in later seasons of Weeds. Their sibling rivalry drove a significant number of episodes. OITNB has so far neglected to grace Alex with a sibling, but Piper has a brother who has figured prominently.
Whether Piper or Alex is an “extension” of Nancy is up for debate (to put it mildly), but the shared character of “sound” really isn’t. Certainly, many would be reluctant to include “sound” as a character on a series. Yet, it is the single unifying element, beginning and ending every episode. The songs and the sound effects populating the audible landscape of Agrestic and Litchfield prison, from the clattering of jewelry on the wrists of concerned suburban housewives to the clanking spoons in the prison mess hall, were made by a number of the same people.
By far, the greatest number of similarities on both shows are the aural talents of Jayme Mattler (ADR), Andrew Morgado (ADR & Foley Mixer), Jesse Dodd (Foley Mixer), Adam De Coster (Foley Artist), John Peccatiello (Sound Effects Editor), Chris Philip (Re-Recording Mixer), John Chamberlin (Sound Re-Recording Mixer), and John Kincade (Supervising Sound Editor). Wife-and-husband team Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay served as composers for both programs along with music editors Michael Brake and Maarten Hofmeijer, music coordinator Nicole Weisberg, and music supervisor Bruce Gilbert.
No mention of the two series’ music would be complete without recognizing the contributions of internationally acclaimed recording artist Regina Spektor. Not only did the pianist contribute a version of the Weeds theme song “Little Boxes” to the Season 2 episode “Mile Deep and a Foot Wide,” her song “Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” appeared in the Season 8 episode “Saplings.” Spektor is featured even more prominently in OITNB. Her song “You’ve Got Time” is the theme music that accompanies the opening credits’ montage of faces. Sound is the unseen force binding both Weeds and Orange Is the New Black.
However, for the most devoted television conspiracy theorists, it’s not enough to draw connections between OITNB and Weeds. The nuttiest have found a way to tie OITNB and Weeds not only to each other, but to Community, Arrested Development, St. Elsewhere and an entire TV-based universe. It all stems from a shot of Poussey eating Let’s potato chips. Like Oceanic Airlines and Nozz-a-la Cola, this fake brand is a notable edible and comedic staple on NBC’s Community. Michael Arbeiter at Hollywood.com pointed out this connection, and proclaimed it meant that the two shows “exist in the same universe.”
But Arbeiter didn’t stop there. On Arrested Development, Gob is also seen eating Let’s potato chips, and Arbeiter argues this is more than just a nice wink to Community. “Does this mean there are three shows that fall into the mix?,” he writes. “Hell no. It means there are about a thousand.” He cites how detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) of Law and Order appeared on Arrested Development. Munch also appeared as a character on a number of other series including to the popular 1990s cop drama Homicide: Life on the Street, which has a crossover character—Roxanne Turner (Alfre Woodard)—to the beloved 1980s St. Elsewhere’s.
Now, shit gets weird. St. Elsewhere famously ended with a screen out to Tommy Westphall, a young man with autism, playing with a snow globe to denote that the entire series, its characters and plots, were all in his imagination. The Westphall theory of television is that there is an entire universe connecting tons of our favorite programs into a web of coexisting realities that exist inside Tommy’s mind.
Just to further twist your head in knots, Weeds also brushes against the Tommy Westphall multiverse through its imaginary products. In the Season 3 episode “The Brick Dance” drug kingpin Heylia James (played by Tonye Patano) is seen smoking Morley Cigarettes, a fictional brand appearing in several fictional works including American Horror Story, Breaking Bad, and the original Psycho. And in the Season 4 episode “If You Work For a Living, Then Why Do You Kill Yourself Working?” the gang celebrates Silas’ 18th birthday by cracking open a case of Heisler Gold Ale, a fake beer from such diverse properties as Desperate Housewives, How I Met Your Mother, and Star Trek. Both products were created by the entertainment property company Independent Studio Services, one of the largest movie prop suppliers in the country. Their fake brands are key signifiers of property crossovers.
Wrap your mind around that. Alex Vause as Nancy Botwin doesn’t seem that strange now, does it?