'Orange Is The New Black' and the Downgraded Protagonist
In 2010, Spiegel and Brau published a memoir by Piper Kerman called Orange Is The New Black. The book detailed Piper's thirteen months spent in a women's correctional facility for her brief involvement in a drug smuggling and money laundering gang ten years prior. While the narrative stuck mostly to Piper's own experiences in prison, her ultimate goal was to shed light on the deeply flawed prison system in America. Since the book was a bestseller, it can be said that goal was more or less accomplished.
And of course, because the book was a success, a screen adaptation was in order. The honors ultimately went to Netflix, and in 2013 they debuted a TV series of the same name, produced by Weeds creator Jenji Kohan. The show was an instant success with critics and viewers alike, the latter of whom were free to binge-watch OITNB in its entirety. While several liberties were taken with the source material, the series more or less followed the same narrative path as Kerman's memoir, with a version of the real Piper serving as our protagonist.
Fast forward to June of this year, and the release of OITNB season three, and it has become painfully obvious that Piper is no longer the focus of the show. This is likely something viewers hadn't noticed, as her "star" status slowly dwindled from the beginning of season 2. No longer is this a show about a W.A.S.P. in prison, it is now a show about women in prison, with Piper being just one of the many faces wandering the halls of Litchfield.
So...what happened? Why is our protagonist now a part of an ensemble, no more or less important than every other character? And what does it say about the show, its writers, and its showrunner—i.e., is it a positive or a negative transition?
"It Was The Change"
Part of this shift in perspective has a bit to do with the source material. As stated previously, the TV series Orange Is The New Black is not quite the same thing as the memoir of the same name. Character names are changed—including Piper Kerman to Piper Chapman—scenes are altered and plots deviate into new territory. Basically, we can view the series as an alternate universe version of reality. That being said, while OITNBTV deviates from what really happened, up until season 2, the basic events of Kerman's life were left more or less intact (save rekindling her relationship with her ex-girlfriend and breaking up with her fiancé, of course).
The first episode of the second season corresponds to the ending of Kerman's memoir, which means everything that follows is a construct of Kohan and her writing staff. By this point too, said creators had also explored many other characters populating this somewhat fictional prison, crafting meaningful backstories and subplots for these women. With Piper's original story more or less told at this point, the other women began to take center stage, a move that was apparently one hundred percent intentional, according to Kohan in a recent interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air (highlights of which are available at NPR's website):
In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. You're not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it's a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it's relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It's useful.
In other words, it was Kohan's intention to downgrade Piper as a protagonist from the get-go. This isn't all that surprising, since many episodes from the first season departed from Piper-centric plots and showcased the experiences of other inmates.
But was this a good choice? Is the show stronger as an ensemble piece?
"Empathy Is A Boner Killer"
Short answer: Yes.
Why? Because Piper is annoying.
Maybe you don't feel that way. Maybe you really identify with Piper and everything she's going through. But many, myself included, really don't care for her at all. She wasn't so bad in season 1. There were several moments throughout those first thirteen episodes that built a strong sense of empathy for the character—particularly in the episode "Blood Donut," where Piper's natural sense of self-preservation butts heads with the lives of her fellow inmates. The decisions she's forced to make are tough ones that yield no easy answers.
But that was season 1. In the following seasons we see Piper become vindictive, self-serving and, ultimately, just plain mean, transforming herself from a nice little flower to a wannabe hardened criminal with "Trust No Bitch" tattooed on her arm, a person who will trample whoever she has to in her quest for prison dominance. Basically, she's Walter White without being, you know, Walter White, a person we genuinely like watching despite his increasingly despicable actions. Because Walter White has that relatable backstory and psychological motivation driving him into the depths of inhumanity, so while we may not forgive his behavior, we certainly understand it.
But Piper...Piper is just a spoiled brat. End of story.
We've been down this road before. In Jenji Kohan's previous series Weeds, the protagonist Nancy starts out as a naive suburbanite, perhaps a bit entitled but overall a likable character. She quickly becomes an intolerable idiot who stumbles blindly through her own tribulations, managing to slip out of the proverbial noose around her neck through shear dumb luck, slurping down iced coffees as she goes. I gave up on the show somewhere around the third or fourth season because I just couldn't watch this woman anymore. She wasn't a strong enough character to hold my interest. I couldn't have cared less about her.
But I haven't given up on OITNB. And my persistent enjoyment of this show has everything to do with the other characters. Piper is basically Nancy here, and given her rich New England background and her world of utter privilege, is it really any surprise that she's become so awful? Not really.
Fortunately, Piper just doesn't matter anymore, when we have characters like Taystee, Poussey, Red, Nicky, Sophia, even Caputo and Pennsatucky to invest our time in (and thank God Larry isn't around anymore, amiright?).
And really, this sort of thing is nothing new. TV shows have gravitated away from their protagonists for decades. Cheers became less and less about Sam Malone, so much so the creators where able to successfully create a spin off featuring one of that show's more popular "supporting" characters, Frasier Crane. In turn, Frasier began to focus less on its titular protagonist and began featuring episodes revolving around his brother Niles, his father Martin, his producer Roz, and so on.
The Walking Dead isn't just about Rick anymore. It's also about Daryl and Michone and Carol and Glenn and Maggie and Sasha and, of course, zombies and gory special effects.
The Simpsons might as well be renamed Springfield at this point.
You get the picture. The point is, television as a medium lends itself to ensemble casts and episodic scenarios. So it's better to branch away from a protagonist with no more story to tell than to stick with said protagonist until the entire show implodes (i.e., what happened with Weeds).
In the end, Orange Is The New Black is better off with Piper getting less screen time. Many of the other characters (and, by proxy, the show itself) have simply matured past Piper's juvenile antics, and thus they are infinitely more engaging.
What say you, dear LitReactor folk? Are you fans of Piper? Or, like me, are you happy to see her take a backseat to the other characters? Sound off in the comments section below.
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