2 years, 5 months ago
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.
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