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5 Theories on Inconsistent Characterization in Orange in the New Black

February 21, 2014

[Spotlights contain spoilers.  There are also Buffy spoilers in here for some reason.]

I blew through Orange is the New Black–the TV series, not the book–in a few days in the midst of a stress-related freak-out/shut-down.  It was recommended to me by the same friend who asked me to keep going with Once Upon a Time even though I’d stalled out in the middle of the first season and, while she’s not one of my go-to people whose recommendations automatically mean I reach for my remote, we have enough in common that I tend toward watching what she asks, especially because OUAT really did pick up like she said it would.  She’s my alternative-viewing friend; we bring chat up on Facebook and watch OUAT and Downton Abbey together.  She’s probably never going to watch Arrow with me, which is my new love (Jennifer Crusie’s fault, but I’ll get to that in another post), but when there’s Something Else to be watched, there we are.

She said, “You should watch it,” so I watched the first episode, and then the second…and two days after that I was finishing the last episode and bringing up Wikipedia and IMDB and hitting Google for the date of the season premier.  As you do.  But despite all my enjoyment, there was one thing that really bothered me: the characterization of Piper Chapman.

It’s so inconsistent.  We’re told over and over again who Piper is, but nothing we see on the screen matches to those descriptions.  Piper is supposed to be a repressed Connecticutian (of course) who goes from possibly acting out by getting involved with a female drug dealer (although a classy one!) to becoming a quinoa- and kale-obsessed yuppie as her blonde CT destiny has always assumed.  Now she’s in jail for eighteen months because of her involvement with the drug dealer, and if we’re supposed to see her become that person again, or become someone new, I just can’t tell you because from one episode to the next, Piper defies expectations in the most confusing way possible.

We see Piper as repressed, we see her as entitled, but we also see her instigating and broken down and manipulative and selfish and kind and caring and these are usually put to us in one scene after the next after the next.  If I had any sense that Piper was supposed to be this incredibly layered character, I’d love her, but I don’t.  Instead, she just contradicts herself in episode after episode.  She doesn’t seem to gel as a character until about three episodes from the end of the season.  That is a LOT of time to invest in an inconsistent lead.  Fortunately, there are scores of other characters to enjoy, characters who are completely consistent (except maybe the one who steps in for Taystee after she leaves and then Taystees it up for a while; I don’t think they knew what to do with her, either).

So why does Piper’s characterization suck?  I’ve come up with a few theories.

1) Piper is based on a real person, and trying to find the balance between writing a real person and creating a fictionalized version of them can be difficult.  I have no idea how accurate this is.  It’s just a theory.  (You know, the not-scientific kind.)  The real Piper is an executive producer on the show; maybe the writers know her and shy away from her character in writing because of it.

2) The episodes are written by different people who have different ideas of who Piper is.  This happens.  Anya was always more girly when Rebecca Rand Kishner wrote her in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  There are nine different writers for those thirteen episodes of Orange is the New Black.  Perhaps because the show often moves Piper to what feels like a B storyline while highlighting a different character with each A (you could argue it either way, who’s the lead for which episode), writers were less interested in Piper and more interested in Sophia, Alex, Miss Claudette…

3) Taylor Schilling acts all of her scenes as if they exist in isolation to one another.  When I first saw her, I thought, “She looks familiar” and then I looked her up on IMDB and yelled, “Ohmigod, it’s the dead-eyed chick from Atlas Shrugged!” I wanted to like that movie because I feel like there are books that have good stories but not-so-good writers and therefore the movies should tear away the crap and reveal the story for what it is.  It didn’t happen with Twilight, sadly, and it didn’t happen with Atlas Shrugged Part 1, either, in part thanks to Taylor Schilling’s dead eyes, through which she sadly tried to emote and could not.  Schilling acts each scene in Orange well, but her performance never came together as a whole for me until the end of the season, when her character stopped doing contradictory things, but there was one episode specifically where I was willing to point the finger at Schilling: when she kisses Alex after coming out of the SHU.  After she’d JUST SAID she wasn’t going to do that, that she would be a model prisoner.  This should be a giant turning point, but also a BIG DECISION, even if it’s one she makes quickly, and we should’ve seen it on her face.  But we don’t.  She just contradicts herself, AGAIN.  Another actress could’ve pulled it off.  Schilling didn’t.  In the next episode, Piper explains to the Scared Straight kids how lonely everything is, and it feels like we’re being given the reason afterward.  THAT SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN.  With your lead, you should know why they made the decision they did, why they contradict themselves.  If the writer uses the character to explain it to you after the fact, that writer (or team of writers) has failed.  It’s okay for a character to contradict him- or herself.  People do that in real life.  But we need to know why.  Using Buffy as an example again, Buffy hates that Spike has a crush on her.  But when she’s looking for someone who’s been through what she has, and when she’s looking for physical comfort, we understand why she chose him, and why she continues to choose him, even when she’s disgusted with herself and swearing she won’t do it again.  This is not given to us at the moment of her decision, but is a line of choices that we watch her make.  Yes, we saw Alex and Piper get closer beforehand, but then we’re given her time in SHU and her promise, which she immediately breaks.  As the season closes, Piper becomes less sympathetic but more consistent, and we can look back and see that she’s always been selfish, but at that point we starting to retcon for our own sanity.

4) The writers are great with back story but bad on character development.  Orange spends a lot of its time showing you the back stories of their characters, and they can, in one short scene, make you sympathize over actions that in other circumstances you would find repulsive.  When we first meet Marcus, he is stealing credit card information from a family whose home has been destroyed in a fire.  How disgusting is that?  How many times can a good family be hurt?  But then when we find out why Marcus is doing it, when we discover Sophia, our judgment has changed.  I’d like to see that trial.  In the present day, not much is actually happening to anyone but Piper and Larry in appreciable ways.  If this is the issue, we’ll see more of it in the second season, I suppose, now that we’ve been introduced to people.  We’ll find that the reveal of the characters is handled much better than the progression of the characters.

5) It’s a purposeful decision on the part of the show runner and writers to make the white lead the least relatable character on the show.  I have no issue with this, and I don’t say this as some sort of white defender.  If this is true, it’s probably one of the most clever things I’ve ever seen a show do.  Orange is subversive; you think you’re about to watch a show about a privileged white woman who goes to prison for the crime of picking up a bag for her girlfriend years before; you think you’re about to watch her navigate prison life.  Instead, you primarily get a lot of back story on the other characters, most of them POC, a whole lot of screen time on them, until Piper becomes the least interesting part of every episode, although perhaps not of every scene she’s in.  I read this article last week about the show and the author was worried about the hypersexualization of the POC characters.  I have to disagree.  If anything, the show presents the “tribes” of black and Latina women, as well as the “alternative” characters (lesbians, Piper’s drop-out, class-reject brother), as normally sexualized, whereas upper middle class “white” sex is often portrayed as incredibly repressed and made the butt of jokes.  Um, no pun intended, although one of my examples is the line from Piper’s best friend on her wedding day about how her husband-to-be never asked her for anal sex.  The responses to Larry’s “edging” article is another example of that.  Since the show often goes for the jab at the upper middle class, it’s possible that screwing up Piper’s character would lead white viewers to become more emotionally invested in POC characters.  One of the things I love about Orange is that I feel like I’m watching POC having the kinds of interactions they don’t usually have in mainstream television, which is primarily white.  I’m trying to think of the last time I felt that way, and it was Dexter, but to a much lesser extent.

So is Piper purposely written poorly?  Is her character assassinated, jerked around by what the plot needs, to fit the agenda of the creator?  It’s possible.  How amazing would that be?

Meanwhile, I sit here waiting for Season Two, in which I am hoping to see more Suzanne, the back stories of pretty much everyone, the writers ceasing to shy away from the word “bisexual,” and Sophia doing something with Nicky’s hair.  Because, Jesus, girl, no one has to live like that.

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