New York — – On last season’s finale of “Orange is the New Black,” Judy King, nailed for tax evasion, arrived at Litchfield Penitentiary to surrender. But she found no one at the front desk to receive her.
Judy had a fit. A big-time TV chef, she wasn’t used to being made to wait.
With Netflix’s release of the entire 13-episode fourth season on Friday, viewers will find Judy has subsequently gotten a warm welcome at Litchfield from many of her fellow female inmates (she’s a TV star!). And from the warden, too, who handles her with kid gloves: He worries that, if anything ugly should befall her, bad publicity or even a lawsuit would result.
Suffice it to say that Judy will help make this “Orange” season cook as Blair Brown joins the cast of this prison comedy-drama for an exploration of fame compelled to coexist with hoi polloi.
In a recent interview, Brown takes pains to say Judy King isn’t meant to be a Martha Stewart knockoff, although the similarities (including their mutual incarceration) are obvious. But so is the nod to down-South culinarian Paula Deen, as evidenced by Judy’s luxurious drawl.
“Judy’s Southern all right,” says Brown. “She’s also very outgoing, very friendly, and a complete egotist in the sense that whatever is good for her, she figures is very good for you. She is a survivor, and her attitude in being in prison is, she just wants to get this done.”
In the process, she rises to the occasion. Here, as with most places, she loves the spotlight.
“It’s interesting to come into this story playing a privileged person,” Brown says. “There are a lot of feelings both on the administrative side and the inmate side as to what that means, and why that is.”
Brown, 70, is a veteran actress with a wide range of roles whose only commonality may be her signature red hair and luminous smile.
Her film work includes a trio of major releases within two years (1980-81): “One-Trick Pony,” “Altered States” and “Continental Divide.” Her many theater credits include a Tony Award-winning turn in the play “Copenhagen.”
Recent TV appearances include a recurring role last season on “Limitless,” and before that as the steely corporate boss on the Fox sci-fi series “Fringe.”
And, of course, there’s her celebrated run as the title character of “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” which, though not a smash hit, helped change TV.
Brown says she has been an “Orange” fan since its inception.
“When it first started, I thought, ‘Is there any room for me on this?’ But I decided they had plenty of people, with enough stories to tell.
“Then I got the call to play Judy,” she smiles, “and the character was easy, because she came in wondering how does all this work? So did I. All the stuff I’m trying to find out as a new cast member works hand in hand with Judy’s journey. So that’s been a happy coincidence.”
Another happy coincidence: The role has brought her back to Kaufman Astoria Studios, the Queens, New York, production center where “Molly Dodd” was shot three decades ago.
Premiering on NBC in May 1987, “Molly Dodd” centered on a mid-30s divorcee living in New York who, by turns, was a free spirit and a Yuppie hewing to no clear professional or romantic path.
While many viewers loved this new form, many more didn’t get it. Nor would some of them accept Molly: She was a bit too liberated, too unpredictable, too complex.
For Brown, it was all a much simpler experience.
“It just seemed so easy,” she recalls. “We told these little half-hour stories. We didn’t have a laugh track and we didn’t have to go for big yuks. We thought, ‘Let’s just have a person who lives her life. What would that be like?’ And that, of course, is what some people loved. But other people hated it.”
NBC, as perplexed by “Molly Dodd” as some viewers, bounced the show from slot to slot for a year. Then Lifetime came to its rescue, where it aired until 1991.
Along the way, it helped stake out a genre dubbed “dramedy,” a term also applied to similarly groundbreaking shows “Hooperman,” “Frank’s Place” and “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” which launched Neil Patrick Harris.
It was a form that greatly stretched the possibilities of the strictly comic half-hour sitcom, as well as the strictly dramatic hourlong dramas of that day. Without “Molly Dodd,” it’s possible that “Orange” would never have happened.
“But now,” says Brown, “many, many years later, I’m back in Queens, at the same studio, doing another show that’s funny when it wants to be funny, serious and scary when it wants to be serious and scary. It’s a very similar idea. It’s just about people. And you don’t have to blow anything up.”
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