How Orange is the New Black Subverts its Own Protagonist
By Cameron Cook | Editor-In-Chief Published: 08/02/2013 9:09 am EST
[Note: This analysis of Orange is the New Black contains spoilers]
Piper Chapman is a manipulative narcissist. Nothing is her fault, and she’s always the victim. She’s also the hero of Jenji Kohan’s funny, tragic, and insightful new series, exclusive for Netflix subscribers. Kohan, who created the infinitely watchable Weeds, is working in a similar vein with Orange is the New Black. The only difference, besides the hour-long format of OITNB, being that this show isn’t afraid to blend tones.
In Weeds, Kohan kept the show light. Even when people were murdered, the show always had an air of whimsy to keep it from going over the edge. For Piper Chapman, that whimsy never seems to materialize.
Other Netflix original series fit into one tone. Arrested Development‘s season four is exclusively comedy, House of Cards is exclusively drama. Hemlock Grove is exclusively camp horror. What makes Orange is the New Black different is also what makes it the best television the company has yet offered. It’s not a comedy, nor a drama. It’s a complicated intermingling of the two.
In the show’s best moments, we’re laughing and crying at the same time. It’s a look at imprisoned women who are all, in some way, being failed by a system that probably never worked to begin with. They do the best they can with what they’ve got, but no happy moment comes without consequence.
Perhaps the most tragic backstory of them all belongs to Watson (Vicky Jeudy), the former track star who just wanted to be accepted by her peers. She’s smart and well-adjusted, but she’s also bitter and full of rage over her incarceration. If things had only gone slightly differently, she wouldn’t be there at all. Her only freedom is the track, where she can run and pretend she’s only training. Watson’s story, like most of the other backstories of the inmates, is far more interesting than Piper’s, which leads to both the main problem of the show and one of its greatest strengths.
Piper Chapman is not likable. She treats other people like supporting characters in the great drama of her life. Only, her life isn’t as interesting as she thinks it is. In fact, I would say she’s got the least interesting story of the bunch.
While it’s true that Orange is the New Black is based on a memoir, Jenji Kohan has obviously gone to great lengths to make sure that Piper’s story remains framed by what she isn’t.
Even the opening title sequence, one of the best I’ve ever seen, focuses on the many unseen faces of the prison, never once giving us a look at our protagonist.
When I first started watching the show, I thought it was strange that Kohan decided to focus yet again on a Nancy Botwin-type character–a thin, affluent, manipulate, attractive white woman. As the show went on, however, and I saw more and more of the surrounding characters, I started to see the brilliance of her seemingly ethnocentric decision.
We’re supposed to be upset that Piper is the central character. Like everything else that has gone wrong in these inmates’ lives, Piper is just another obstacle they have to deal with. Not only are they marginalized in America, they’re marginalized even further in their prison. Once Piper steps onto the campus, the proceedings all seem to surround her. Even though she starts out her sentence with the full support of the prison staff. She even has a shorter sentence than everybody else we get to know.
Kohan’s use of flashback is what gives the show its edge. While Piper believes that her story (at least for the first half of the series) makes her somehow less guilty than the other inmates, we, as the audience, are clued in to the various backstories of the others. Most of them were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and others had their hands forced by circumstance. Taystee, played by fantastic newcomer Danielle Brooks, has such a terrible home life that she’d rather be behind bars. Taystee’s story, as well as Claudette’s, may be the most compelling stories of the series. Not because they’re innocent, but because they’re guilty. And they own it.
Claudette, we find out, murdered a man who was physically (and possibly sexually) abusing one of her teenage employees. She sacrificed her freedom to protect the girl, and now she must live in the filth of prison forever as a neat freak.
Orange is the New Black is the story of a privileged woman slowly coming to terms with what it’s like to be marginalized. Kohan wisely tells the story through humor, warmth, darkness, tragedy, and violence. The combination of emotions and tones make the show one of the more unique television experiences of the year.
It’s one of the rare cases of television where we see the hero’s journey in reverse, where regression, in this situation, is progression.
Cameron Cook has been obsessed with, and haunted by, films of all kinds ever since that weird, singing fish jumped out of that pond in The Brave Little Toaster. Now he's all grown up, educated in the ancient art of writing and telling stories, and he's still wondering whose idea that fish was. What he does know is how to find a good writer, and he's spent his life working his way toward CultureMass.