Main Character Syndrome

The consensus is clear: Orange is the New Black spends too much time on its main character, Piper. I don’t disagree — the other women’s stories are objectively much more interesting, and there’s something disturbing about the fact that we supposedly “need” a privileged white woman as an initial point of identification for a story about a women’s prison.

OITNB is hardly the only show afflicted by Main Character Syndrome. Mad Men spends too much time on Don Draper. The Wire spent too much time on McNulty. Deadwood was clearly inclined to spend too much time on Bullock, but thankfully we were spared that due to Swearengen’s breakout performance. Weeds spent too much time on Nancy Botwin. True Blood just can’t quit Sookie. Etc., etc.

This happens so much that it has to count as a systemic problem in serial television drama. The answer can’t be that the writers all spontaneously screwed up when creating the main characters — systemic problems have systemic causes. I believe a combination of economic and artistic factors are at work here.

On the artistic side, there is the problem of creating continuity and coherence in an indefinitely extended drama, and the easiest way to do this is to use one character’s story as a kind of through line that frames everyone else’s story. The Wire was more experimental in trying to make the city of Baltimore as such its “main character,” but in the end, the true narrative framing device was McNulty’s ongoing personal frustration with the police department.

Why is this kind of coherence necessary? In part, it’s a matter of artistic prestige — a unified overarching plot has been a marker of excellence since Aristotle’s Poetics. And while the drive for unity has definite drawbacks, we do have counterexamples that show why it’s arguably the lesser evil. Treme goes much further than The Wire in making the city itself the main character, and the result is that it feels like a random amalgamation of vaguely interrelated characters. And of course Game of Thrones can’t even keep itself to a single continent, so that most episodes amount to a compilation of 4-minute snippets from random plotlines.

If one character is going to serve as the principle of unity, that character must remain internally consistent, at least within certain broad boundaries. Hence their behavior is bound to appear repetitive and predictable at some point during the course of a long-running TV drama. One way to handle this problem may be to “hand off” the main character role over the course of the series — but the successor character will be subject to the same pressures, and meanwhile you’ve hurt the overall unity of the series. For instance, I’m open to the idea that Mad Men should have put Don in the background and made Peggy the main character (and it seems to me that there’s no other plausible successor), but it’s not clear to me that Peggy has any more rich and varied a personality than Don does. Within a couple seasons, everyone would be sick of Peggy, too.

On the economic side, one must recognize that the primary audience for High Quality Cable Drama is privileged white people, and this creates significant pressure to make the main character “relatable” (i.e., white and privileged). You can make the white character lower class, but they have to be “special” and secretly better at everything (cf. Sookie). You can give significant screen time to African-American characters, but only if their ambitions are recognizable to whites (cf. Stringer Bell in season 3 of The Wire) or if they are finally subordinate to those of the white main character (cf. the black family in early seasons of Weeds).

In any case, the kinds of stories you can tell are inherently limited by the need to have a privileged white person as your “way in” — and hence we’re back to OITNB. In conclusion, I’d like to suggest that the reason we are seeing such an early backlash against Piper (which began before the end of the first season) is not simply that Piper is uniquely limited as a character or that her storylines are overshadowed by the more significant struggles of the other inmates (though both are true).

I believe the fundamental problem is that Piper is changing too much. The give-away here is that people seem very dissatisfied with her “tough” persona in the second season, even though (to give the writers credit!) that is probably a realistic coping strategy as someone becomes accustomed to the prison environment. In fact, it seems that her wild emotional swings, her lurching from one loyalty to the next, from one strategy to the next, are actually a completely appropriate and understandable reaction to the trauma and imprisonment.

The problem is an artistic one: her behavior and motives are simply too erratic to serve as the point of unification for the series. As the main character, Piper’s not holding up her end of the bargain. And since the problem is not fixable at this late date, I’d suggest that in the case of OITNB, the unfocused soap opera format would actually be the lesser evil.

8 thoughts on “Main Character Syndrome

  1. It seems like BREAKING BAD’s absence from this discussion is worth a followup. Can we imagine a “too much Walt” complaint? THE SOPRANOS, too – are there many who really think that Tony hogged the spotlight and we needed more time on secondary characters?

  2. Been rewatching The Shield lately and would have to say that that’s a case in which I’m very grateful for the main character centered focus as few richer ones than Vic Mackey come readily to mind. Alternately, we shouldn’t forget the example of NYPD Blue, which was centered primarily around David Caruso’s character until Caruso quit early in the second season. At that point the concentration shifted toward it being more of an ensemble show. Same goes for Cheers after Shelley Long left. Meanwhile, a great series like The Good Wife is focused upon its very rich and shaded and naturally developing main character but has also broadened its canvas over the years to include detailed portraits of everyone around her.

  3. I think Walter White is a special case because he’s not simply the main character — he is the story. And Bryan Cranston’s dynamic performance means that he’s able to provide both the variety and the continuity within one character.

    The example of Star Trek is perhaps illuminating here. Next Generation was an ensemble show from the beginning, with Picard as a much looser “main character” than usual — but it was never strictly serial anyway. When DS9 started to go serial, it was for a war plot, which is inherently a sprawling story, and since they only had the ensemble model to build off of, they went for more of a soap opera format. By contrast, Voyager went for a more unified plot in the Seven of Nine seasons, with the result that she got overexposed. Similarly, in the Next Generation movies, they consistently made Picard the main character to the exclusion of others (except for b-plots with Data) — in a way it’s a shame, but the demand of creating a sustained overarching plot led inevitably to a single-character focus.

  4. I think one benefit of Main Character Syndrome is that the viewers only really get burned out on one character, so that all the other characters seem stronger than they might if given more consistent exposure (cf. Kenneth the Page). After all, what does it concretely mean to “like” a character other than to want to see more of them?

  5. I didn’t have an issue with Piper being the main character and “point of entry” to all the other stories swimming in OITNB.

    In fact, it seems clever because–like you say–the majority of the audience for High Quality Cable Drama is white privileged people, by making the character part of that fabric and having their assumptions turned on their head in effect subverts the audiences’ own assumptions about prison life and the lives of the prisoners.

    Piper and her cohorts aren’t necessarily taken too seriously because their bourgeois liberal lifestyle is mocked in a Portlandia sort of way while the other characters’ struggles (coming from less educated, less privileged backgrounds) are taken seriously.

    Instead of using Piper as a way to get the audience to identify with the other characters, the show’s creators are using her as a way to mock and subvert the audiences’ expectations and habits.

    Although the show does spend more time than necessary with the character and her on-again/off-again struggles with Alex V. and Larry–neither of whom are all that interesting. Her “toughness” in the second season rang kind of false too and seemed to happen too quickly. The show could take the radical step of having Piper leave the prison and maintain the focus on the rest of the prisoners next season.

    It’d probably be interesting if the fourth season goes forward in time, when Piper inevitably writes her book and has a show produced and someone Piperesque comes to the prison with their own expectations having read/seen her story. Especially since this show, despite having the most diverse cast since probably The Wire, is still being consumed and held in high regard by a white privileged audience.

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