'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.

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

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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Alexander Young's picture
Alexander Young August 5, 2015 - 9:46am

Couldn't agree more on the part of the writer here and the creator of the show. Using Piper as a marketing tactic to get the show on the air and the concept off the ground is brilliant from a marketing/network/producer standpoint. She's the ideal poster child for the show to hook a mainstream audience, but her character arc ran out of gas two years ago. It's boring and repetitive to watch her make the same mistakes with minor changes, Weeds suffered horribly from that. She isn't nearly emotionally complex or psychologically driven to hold a candle to Walter White considering she has zero motivation to be a criminal. In reality she would be trying to get out of prison ASAP to start a legit business, not pulling a cheap stunt to make peanuts while it could get her sentence extended. If she wants to be bad, why not get out and work for Kuber Bollick (sp?) anyway? Sloppy writing, makes the show uneven when there are way more interesting characters on there. If they were smart they would let Piper go all together, let her get out of jail, make room for new leads and give the show room to expand before she ruins it. 

Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck August 5, 2015 - 12:23pm

I like the idea of focusing more on other characters.  Not necessarily because I thought Piper was bad, but because the other ones are just so good.  But that being said, they didn't need to go the direction they did with her.  That is, the Nancy Botwin treatment.  And she's just one example of it.

When it comes to Weeds, I was in the same boat as you.  The show quickly went off the rails for me and I could only hang on for so long.  I sort of feel the same way about OITNB.  In the same Kohan fashion, we're three seasons in and Piper's all Criminal Mastermind; there's a religious cult that sort of came out of nowhere; Crazy Eyes is writing anime-esque alien erotica serials that everyone becomes hyper-obssesed with; the prisoners escape because the prison literally took down the fence, only to go swimming (not one of them at least tries to make a break for it?).

The show has always been sort of silly.  That's part of Kohan's appeal.  But tilt silly a little too far and you get rediculous.

I am, however, interested to see what the new prisoners will add in season 4.  But there's a cyncial side of me - based solely on how Weeds went - where it'll be conflict for the sake of conflict, spinning this thing out of control with even greater velocity.

cshultz81's picture
cshultz81 from Oklahoma is reading Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 August 5, 2015 - 4:07pm

I don't mind the direction with Piper. It actually makes sense, given who she is, and how vacuous her life is. I'm just happy it will remain in the background.

The other story arcs didn't bother me either, but yeah, the fact that ALL the inmates went swimming... Nope. I mean, Daya has a baby out there I'm sure she's eager to see.

Betty Spinks's picture
Betty Spinks August 7, 2015 - 6:51pm

I enjoyed reading this post! I like Piper and I have sometimes wished there were a way to make her more empathetic. But as you say, Christopher--boner killer. In other words, humanizing her would've been dishonest and viewers would've called bullshit.

I do have a gripe about Season 3 (as much as I loved it): Did anyone notice how smart and wordly and philosophical the ensemble suddenly became?

Specific examples escape me now, but I recall nearly every character (guard, inmate or otherwise) at some point in every episode this season using references to art, literature, culture, politics et al in conversation that, regardless of their background, seemed totally at odds with their character as written in the previous two seasons.

I'm not saying guards and inmates in real life or on tv can't be deep or high-brow, and I'm all for irony. I'm just saying I could hear the writer writing the character, if that makes sense. Kinda took me out of the moment every time, but that's my (teensy weensy) problem.



Jake MacPhail's picture
Jake MacPhail from Columbus, OH is reading Crime and Punishment August 14, 2015 - 11:42am

Maybe I'm just a sucker for a villain, but I much prefer Piper, Convict-Among-Convicts. Then again, I had a younger brother in the pokey ... 

Re: Weeds. Yes, the show really sunk around the time you stopped watching, but I've suspected the wane had less to do with the character development of the protagonist, who was shallow from the start, than uncertainty about what direction to take the plot. When the writers let the character of the psycho-pathic youngest son emerge into his own, the problem took care of itself. Really enjoyed the last two seasons. Can't wait to see what happens with OITNB.



Jake MacPhail's picture
Jake MacPhail from Columbus, OH is reading Crime and Punishment August 14, 2015 - 11:43am



Hannes Hummus Holmquist's picture
Hannes Hummus H... from Sweden is reading your stuff August 18, 2015 - 5:07am

OITNB is one out of two series I've bothered watching this year in marathon together with House of Cards
As far as I'm concerned TV is almost always the better out of two evils, yeah sure OITNB isn't as tight in third season as it was in first, but then again if I need to procrastinate, do I pick How I Met Your Mother or OITNB? Easy choice. 
And almost all of them fall from grace, walking dead did, breaking bad did, sons of anarchy did. Maybe it's all just stories with fascinating themes that survive the actual plotline? 

If anything I think this article brings light to the general erosion of tv-shows a they're kept on air, isn't the re-focus just another way of 'killing your darlings' so that the show can go on?

Anyway I'll keep this article in mind for my up-coming longer writing projects and try to find a way to exhaust a characters past so I can put them aside and use them as backbone for my story and setting and move on to something new and interesting.

nfillmore's picture
nfillmore March 12, 2019 - 11:23pm

Piper Kerman is indeed a pill, par excellence. To read about the larger backstory to the actual smuggling operation, as well as some shame-faced piper incidents, see Smuggler by yours truly.