Orphan Black


This is the monthly bonus post voted on by my Patreon backers. Voting for next month's post just opened on Patreon. Orphan Black Season 3 begins on BBC America this Saturday.

There’s an expectation, with these sorts of things, that I’m going to review the show. This is not entirely helpful for Orphan Black - leading with the question of its quality is putting the focus in the least interesting places, in some ways. This is because it’s not a great show. It is, to be sure, a good show. But greatness stubbornly eludes it, due, if we’re being honest, to the fact that the writing isn’t really all that. It’s been up for a Hugo in both 2014 and 2015 (in the latter case it, along with Doctor Who’s “Listen,” were the two non-Puppy nominees in the Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) category), and in each case you look at the episode that was nominated and find yourself thinking “which one was that again?”

It’s better binged than serialized, I suspect. Certainly I found my desire to watch another episode to be quite intense following the cliffhanger, and relatively middling twenty-four hours later. It can spin its wheels frustratingly. There is not a clear sense that the overarching mythology has a point and is not being made up as the show goes along. Blah, blah, blah.

It would probably be happier on Netflix, where its compatibility with binge watching would be a strength instead of a problem. Likewise, I suspect I’ll pick up Season Three at the end of its run and marathon it instead of tuning in week to week, simply because I think my attention will wander. But the three nights over which I marathoned the existing twenty episodes were terribly fun.

What holds it together - what makes the show extraordinary, in fact, is Tatiana Masalany. It’s perhaps worth mentioning the show’s premise here. Basically, there are clones. Tatiana Masalany thus plays, over the course of the first two seasons, five major characters and an assortment of more minor ones. She acquits herself with the same sort of distinction that marks Patrick Troughton’s performance in Enemy of the World - one so good that you can go long stretches not thinking about the dual role. Each of her characters is bracingly distinct: British grifter, soccer mom, scientist, homicidal Ukrainian religious fanatic, CEO, and so on, and she makes them feel different.

The show is also pleasantly aware of its own best trick, which it hits upon early in its run and wisely never lets go of. It consistently crackles when it contrives to have Masalany play one of her characters pretending to be another. This, thankfully, is the early premise of the show - Sarah, the grifter, starts by impersonating Beth, a Canadian cop who commits suicide at the start of the first episode, and in the process gets pulled into the mystery Beth was investigating, namely “what’s up with all these clones?” Before long Sarah is impersonating other clones, and the show is having other clones get in on the impersonations (most notably, and, satisfyingly, the housewife Alison). In this regard, Enemy of the World is once again a solid point of comparison - Masalany does an extremely good job of making, for instance, Sarah and Alison-as-Sarah feel like distinctly different characters while still making Alison-as-Sarah feel like a performance that could fool the other characters.

And to some extent, I want to hedge against my own criticism, which I suspect is based on a very writerly idea that, well, writing is more important than acting, and so a well-acted show with mediocre writing is clearly inferior. This is, of course, the sort of thing only a critic prone to lengthy essays about television would say. Tatiana Masalany puts the “star” into “starring” here, and her performance justifies itself. Especially because there’s nothing wrong with the writing. Indeed, it deserves praise in a number of regards - I would be shocked if there’s an episode that fails the Bechdel test, there are well-done queer characters of a variety of orientations, and in the second season there’s a promising new character introduced in the form of a trans male clone, which, unsurprisingly, Masalany does well with.

Sure, the vast conspiracy surrounding the clones is probably being made up as the show goes along, but it never spirals out of the writers’ control. Yes, the show has a tendency to go with what was obviously the first idea, particularly with the appearance of Cal, the sensitive and rugged mountain man (played by Michael Huisman, aka Dario Noharis on Game of Thrones) who was forced out of his tech company when his drones to help polinate areas where bee populations have crashed got bought by a military contractor for drone warfare. (No, really.) But it never goes with bad ideas, and so the writing remains a solid if unspectacular platform for Masalany to work on. It’s good television, with the sense to do ten episodes a year so that it doesn’t ever have to put out an episode with bad writing. (In this regard, it differs satisfyingly from a lot of American television, which favors a twenty-two episode season, which is more episodes than any show can reasonably produce in a year without having to produce some outright crap.)

From a critic’s perspective, there are frustrating things. Episode titles come from, in the first season, Darwin quotes, and in the second, Francis Bacon, allowing for portentous titles like “Conditions of Existence” or “Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motion of Things.” Despite this, though, the show never really seems that invested in the philosophical. It gestures at questions like the nature of humanity and identity, but these are more decorations than substance. It’s not a show that’s about the nature of humanity and identity by any measure, and there’s little to grab hold of and start analyzing to produce interesting critical positions.

It’s also not always a show that feels long on self-reflection. One consequence of the trope-heavy, highly visually literate style that dominates television right now is that it becomes important for there to be a sense that there are decisions being made in the writing. More important even than what those decisions are is simply the business of convincing the audience “yes, there is deliberateness to what you are seeing.” With so much television demanding and rewarding close attentive viewing, it becomes important to communicate that this is a show that’s been written attentively. Orphan Black falls down on that, feeling at times made up on the fly, at least in a big picture sense.

But in the small picture, it really is solid. Twenty episodes without a dud is a heck of an accomplishment, and not something that can be done without a sense of deliberateness. Instead, what we have is a show that isn’t particularly writerly in its deliberateness - a fact that makes my job harder, certainly. But making my job easy is not, much as I might like to think otherwise, actually the only way to make good television.

And this is especially important to remember with a show like Orphan Black, which is doing some genuinely important things. It matters that this is one of two shows to overcome the Rabid Puppies slate and make it onto the Hugo ballot, especially given its focus on LGBT issues. In many ways, it’s what the Puppies supposedly want - a nice, breezy show with a focus on action and adventure. It’s inclusive, but not particularly dogmatically so. The closest you can get to seriously claiming it does any diversity for the sake of it is the trans character, and really, it’s hard to argue that’s not an interesting extension of the premise.

The social justice aspects of the show also help explain why some of the philosophical aspects are, perhaps, a bit underplayed: because the central debate of the clones’ humanity is already settled by the basic ethos of the show. Of course they’re all individual people. That’s what Masalany’s brilliant acting performance demands the show think. So given this, the initial “faith vs science” debate or the somewhat awkward idea of the “neolutionists” (evolutionary transhumanist types - one of them has a tail for some reason) were unsurprisingly dead ends. The show is at its best when it’s about the clones, and the sense of family they have, and deserves credit for actually understanding what it’s good at and refocusing on the fly to bring that forward.

And so while it’s never flashy and never does anything that lends itself to lengthy critical exegesis, it is a very, very good show, and, perhaps more importantly, a show that knows how to be good. It’s never going to get the sorts of lengthy essays that Doctor Who or Game of Thrones or Mad Men get. But it’s every bit as much a part of this so-called golden age of television.


David Anderson 5 years, 9 months ago

I think your criticisms are truer of the second season than of the first.

There's an overarching theme about men trying to control women's bodies. The format allows the theme to be played out in at least two genres: the Sarah action-adventure thriller, and the Alison domestic drama. Alison's plot, at least in the first series, if on its own would be an updating of the Stepford Wives that's almost too bleak to watch. By pairing it with the Sarah plot, which is a more straightforward thriller you get something that's a bearable black comedy. (The episode nominated from the first season of the Hugos, Variations Under Domestication was I think the best example of this, being Sarah getting dragged into Alison's plot.)

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Heath 5 years, 9 months ago

I think you nail it here.

This show is an absolute pleasure to watch, and almost entirely for Masalany's work, which you rightfully point out. I always enjoy it, even if I often have no clue what happened last week, and why I'm supposed to care about the plot.

Is there a plot? Kind of. Bad people want to do undescribed and often unmotivated bad stuff to the clones. Until we find out that they weren't bad, and weren't trying to do bad stuff, it was someone else all along. The supporting character heel-turns (and face-turns) are too numerous to count, and as you say, make it seem like they are making it up as they go.

This makes it hard for me to return after a long between season break, as I can't really remember what happened, and not sure if it really matters if I do or not. But as soon as I see those clones in action, it is ON! And I'm braced for the whole episode.

Really interesting television.

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Alex Antonijevic 5 years, 9 months ago

I love the clones trying to impersonate each other. I also love the scenes where there's 3 of them in the room and it's pretty much seamless, you kind of forget it's just one person.

Also pretty cool that the clones all seem to take to Felix - Alison and Felix is one of the funniest duos.

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Scurra 5 years, 9 months ago

The observation about season length deserves proper discussion. The US network/syndication model, in which seasons needed to be around 24 episodes in length (which is why, of course, "24" seemed like such a natural idea!) has been one major reason why shows have so much trouble; the other main one, of course, being the seven season contract. Fortunately, both of those things are now starting to go the way of all flesh and we are getting shows that fill the space they need to fill, instead of dying horribly because they were unsuited to the network structure (cf. Dollhouse, which could have been the greatest show ever, but fell apart completely because it couldn't break those constraints.)
Now all we have to do is to properly kill the timeslot issues, so that we aren't stuck with the artificial 45-minutes-plus-ad-breaks format and we might be getting somewhere...

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The Dapper Anarchist 5 years, 9 months ago

My favourite impersonations were Helena being Beth, or perhaps even her being Sarah being Beth, and Sarah being Cosima - Helena because it's absurd yet sinister, and Sarah because it's all in the performance - Sarah looks over the top of the glasses. I do also like that Sarah appears to be able mimic voices so well...

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HarlequiNQB 5 years, 9 months ago

I love this show with a ridiculous passion, and I think your comments regarding overall structure are very valid (amusing then that the showrunners are honest enough to state that while they have a destination in mind, how they get there they're making up as they go). But really, each episode is an encapsulated gem of fun, and it's much less about the plot,and more about the characters and character interactions. Of course what plot there is seems intended to move the characters in ways to give the most fun interactions, while on the way to whatever that final destination is, and it also helps that even though much of the cast is, in effect, the same person, each of the characters she plays is extremely distinct and defined, and very cleverly designed (both through writing and acting) to work exceptionally well with the others.

Also Felix, who could have been a horribly stereotyped train-wreck or obnoxious irritant, but instead turned out to be one of my favourite characters on TV.

It's back on tomorrow, I am greatly looking forward to it.

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Daru 5 years, 9 months ago

"Episode titles come from, in the first season, Darwin quotes, and in the second, Francis Bacon, allowing for portentous titles like “Conditions of Existence” or “Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motion of Things.” Despite this, though, the show never really seems that invested in the philosophical. It gestures at questions like the nature of humanity and identity, but these are more decorations than substance."

I think I watched the first episode or two of series 1, and for whatever reason didn't manage to continue. I will certainly be having a watch of the first two series when I can. On looking at the show when it came up as a possible essay topic in the Patreon threads, it was those titles that really grabbed my interest and made me think "wow, what will they be exploring in that episode?" I love the exploration of ideas and I would be disappointed at things like these titles being no more than decoration, as in my mind often brilliant titles like those above would be the starting point for an plot or be something that comes to life somehow from the Ideaspace of the characters.

Anyway, sounds like a show worth watching still and will give it a whirl.

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Matthew Blanchette 5 years, 9 months ago

Jordan Gavaris is a goddamn genius for that accent alone.

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encyclops 5 years, 9 months ago

Glad you finally got a chance to comment on this. I don't think the writing is all that bad compared to other shows of its kind, but I can agree that it's the performances that take center stage. It's thoroughly enjoyable to watch, or at least has been so far (I'm only a couple episodes into Season 2), and that's more than enough to keep me on board and loving it.

Part of what drew me in initially were memories of being oddly drawn as a kid to The Cloning of Joanna May. I'm pretty sure this is better, but the resonance makes it all the more appealing to me.

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