In the season two opener of Orange Is The New Black, Piper Chapman, the show’s protagonist, is dealing with the aftermath of her brutal attack on a fellow inmate. While being transferred under guard on a plane bound to Chicago, she treats her fellow travelers—and the audience—to a tearful monologue on her newly realized capacity for violence. As she drones on, the camera pans around Piper, still the star of her own movie—“and everyone else’s,” as fellow inmate Nichols wryly points out. By the time Piper’s unsuspecting seatmate came back into the frame, I half expected her to be asleep. My eyes had rolled so far back into my head that I may as well have been.
There’s a new, rather irritating character trope in television that critics lovingly refer to as the anti-hero. First made popular with Tony Soprano, the anti-hero is a protagonist who is criminally flawed. From Don Draper to Dexter Morgan to Nancy Botwin, television has capitalized on this trend, drawing mass audiences who can’t seem to get enough of these horrible people. Anti-heroes commit terrible acts, but somehow you still root for them.
Except, I don’t. I’d rather not watch them at all.
Piper Chapman comes from a long line of unlikeable protagonists. Breaking Bad’s Walter White is one of television’s most successful anti-heroes. The descent of this cancer-riddled chemistry teacher turned crystal meth kingpin has even been described as one of the most compelling character developments in all of television.
Though, from where I’m standing (two seasons in), Walt has never been particularly likeable. The man we meet in the first season is spineless and selfish, with an air of superiority that seems a bit unwarranted given how unremarkable his life has turned out to be. No stranger to spoilers, I know that Walt evolves into an evil murderous drug-lord. But bumbling, clueless Walt is painful to watch as he blindly charges into the meth business like a bald, mean bull in a china shop.
Perhaps riding the coattails of Breaking Bad’s success, Orange Is The New Black’s Piper is television’s latest anti-hero. A naïve, granola-eating Brooklynite, Piper, like Walt, is clearly out of her depths as the series starts—with a deficiency of common sense so blatant it would be comical if it weren’t so irritating. Piper begins to learn the ropes as the series continues; unfortunately she continues to be an annoying gnat in an otherwise wonderful character study of the incarceration system.
Piper and Walt are flawed, an empty term that writers seem to now be equating with authenticity. But there are plenty of characters in both shows who are equal parts imperfect and fascinating. Despite their faults, you root for the Hanks and Jesses. You want the Taystees, and the Reds, and the Morellos to succeed. You don’t groan or yawn every time they speak for more than a minute. You’re not constantly waiting for them to become more tolerable.
I’m not quite sure what it is about these protagonists in particular that’s so grating. Maybe it’s the fact that both Walt and Piper come from fairly privileged backgrounds and, once forced to enter a less savory world, they charge in with little or no self-awareness. Or perhaps it’s because moments of light self-deprecatory humor are few and far between, making both of them seem impossibly sanctimonious. They are self-centered, arrogant, immoral and often incompetent. That’s not compelling—that’s infuriating.
“You’re not supposed to like them,” fans exclaim. Fine. But I would wager that most of us spend a fair amount of time around people we don’t particularly like in real life—so now we’re supposed to go home and humor utterly disagreeable fictional characters as well? I’d rather not.
The idea of an imperfect protagonist is not an inherently bad concept. But there’s something about the way Walt and Piper are written that feels almost like the writers are actively trying to build an unlikeable character rather than letting the faults reveal themselves naturally.
In the end, I’ll continue with both Breaking Bad and Orange Is The New Black. But not for Walt or for Piper, but for the flawed characters that Vince Gilligan and Jenji Kohan got right. Those characters are what make both shows great—and I can only hope future television will have less Piper Chapmans and more Gloria Mendozas.