The Least Interesting Character On Orange Is The New Black

That title goes to Piper Chapman. It is not often that the supposedly central character on a show can pull this off, but we have evidence now that such an accomplishment is possible. This is not just because Piper is guilty of being WASP’ily ‘precious’ or ‘special’ or ‘privileged’ in the way that her fellow inmates describe as her as being; neither is it because her on-screen persona can very often be teeth-grindingly irritating; and it certainly is not because she is capable of a great deal of pettiness and petulance. Quite simply, there just isn’t that much there. She doesn’t have great lines, and she has little substance to flesh out the front she puts on. Every appearance of her on screen is guaranteed to suck the life out of the episode; it is with relief that we welcome the show’s many other fascinating characters back on stage. (Taystee for instance.)

Piper’s background–shown in flashback, like that of many other characters on OITB–is not particularly intriguing: she ran drugs, was a small business owner in Brooklyn, once had a girlfriend, got engaged, and then got busted. (So unremarkable has this history been that I cannot even remember if we have been granted access via time travel to her childhood years, exposure to which in the case of the other characters has often been quite illuminating.) Her personal conflicts with her fiancée, Larry Bloom, are mildly diverting, but they do not make us empathize or sympathize; somehow, amazingly enough, we fail to feel the pain of a couple separated by imprisonment. (Indeed, her supporting crew on the ‘outside,’ including Larry and her brother, are far more interesting; the latter, especially, should have a spin-off show of his own.) Her relationship with her former partner in crime and girlfriend, Alex Vause, has its moments, but there again, it is sunk by a certain banality; would we care if they broke up or stayed together or punched each other out in the dining hall? Indeed, the injection of the used panty business and the new romantic interest, Stella Carlin the tattooed Australian felon, in the third season, seem like rather desperate attempts by the show’s writers to spice up not just Piper’s life in prison, but also our interest in her. It is just not clear why we should care about this woman with so many other interesting and intriguing women (and men) around. It’s OK to find a character hateful, or irritating, or offensive; it is fatal to find the character just plain boring.

It is not entirely clear to me how this state of affairs has come about. I have not read Piper Kerman‘s book so I do not know if such a banality is present in the original story that underwrites the show. Still, I can only hope–like some other fans of the show that I know–that when Piper’s sentence runs its term, she will be packed off to Brooklyn, and the show will continue without her.

‘Orange Is The New Black’ And Boarding Schools

As I make my way through the second season of Orange Is The New Black, Netflix’s original series based on Piper Kerman‘s memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison about her experiences at FCI Danbury, a minimum-security federal prison, I’m struck again by how much of the prison experience reminds me of my days–two academic years in all–at a boarding school. In saying this, I do not mean to, even for a second, minimize the hardships of the incarcerated, but rather, to point out how boarding schools create conditions analogous at one level to that of jails. Both are similarly inspired by confused notions of discipline and order; both show what happens when humans are confined and regulated by these.

It is all here: the correctional managerial staff i.e., the faculty; the supervisors and guards i.e., the prefects (drawn from the senior graduating class, thus forming a layer between us and school administration); and the inmates i.e., the students. We were subjected to regulation and discipline from on high, from our waking moments to ‘lights out’; we were subjected to arbitrary, often harsh disciplining from prefects (this included the usual ‘six of the best’ and punishment drills); we had fixed meal-times; our uniforms were prescribed and monitored; we could not walk with both hands in our trouser pockets; we could not complain about the food (the food parcels we were sent from home were quickly consumed by our ‘friends); we had limited allowances that we spent at the ‘commissary’; we could not meet our parents except at prescribed times and places (because my family was away in a distant city, I did not meet or talk to my mother for nine months); ‘sickbay’ was a refuge and relief; our every hour was planned and regulated. Some thirty-four years after I left my boarding school, I can still effortlessly regenerate the daily time-table for a school day, right down to the hours.

But the most interesting parallel for me is visible in the personal and social dynamics. Boarding schools, like jails, featured miniature societies, complete with their own pecking orders and hierarchies on the ‘inside.’ There were bullies and master manipulators–like ‘Red‘–who ruled the roost; they were feared and revered and resented in equal measure. There were weak ones–‘freaks’ and ‘weirdos’–who were subjected to bullying and abuse. If you were smart, you sought out and found protection quickly. Some manipulators–like ‘Pennsatucky‘–ruled over mini-groups; their hold over these was–like that of ‘King Rat‘ in James Clavell‘s novel by the same name–a contingent matter, dependent on them being able to continually spin their web of control. The weak quickly came under such influence. Scores were settled by violence and intimidation; sometimes you were cornered in bathrooms, sometimes in a deserted dorm; when a fight broke out, no one intervened till a prefect showed up. And no one, ever, ever, complained about a beating.

When the academic year ended, discipline was relaxed for the last day or so–teachers left campus, prefects gave up the pretense of policing. More scores were settled, more brawls broke out; the buses to take us to train stations and airports for our journeys back home could not arrive soon enough.

And when I got back home, I kept the ‘best stories’ to myself. Folks back home ‘wouldn’t understand’; you had to be on the ‘inside.’ I could write a book about it all; someday, I will.