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.