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Saturday, July 23, 2016

"Orphan Black" and Genre

In my ongoing attempt to catch up to several years ago in pop culture, I’ve finally begun watching Orphan Black. As of the halfway point of my watch, it’s an amazing series, and I wanted to write something about it to reflect on my love for it, even if it was brief.

And there are a million things I could write about. There’s the brilliant acting of Tatiana Maslany, who can effortlessly play a variety of distinct and interesting characters with such skill that you can not only identify them by body language alone, you can identify when it's one character impersonating another. There’s the incredible supporting cast, taking well-written parts and turning them into an entire immersive world. There’s the brilliant cinematography and soundtrack, which are brilliant in setting an unsettling yet magnetic scene.

But I wanted to focus on just one aspect, to keep it more focused. Specifically, I want to look at the transition from season one to season two, and how the writers do a great job of transitioning the genre to accommodate the growing show. 

Like several shows in recent memory, Orphan Black is a mythology-intensive science-fiction drama, highly dependent on a mystery built around its sci-fi hook. However, in many shows like this*, there’s a central issue: when you build a season around a central mystery, you’re going to have to answer it. Once you do that, how do you move on? How can you create that excitement again?

*I’m gonna try not to single out Heroes, but it really is representative of most of these issues, so feel free to substitute that in if you need a specific example.

In an interesting maneuver, series creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett decide to not try. Season 1 is a mystery thriller through-and-through, even frequently crossing into the police procedural genre as Sarah Manning tries to investigate the various mysteries. The show explodes out of the gate, with the first scene setting up the central question that will drive the rest of the season. From there, it's starts to play like a murder mystery; who is committing the string of murders, a general "what's the motive", and related questions.

By season two, all of those general questions are answered, so rather than come up with a new mystery to propel the show forward, it takes a different approach. Determining the murder and motives in season one served to build up the show's mythology, so they shift to exploring that instead. There's no obvious central question driving the plot forward, like the "Who was Beth Childs?" or "Who is the killer?" or "Who is or isn't a spy?" that drove the first season. Instead, it's a much more abstract "What's going on?", or "What is everyone's end game?" It gives the season the feel of a conspiracy thriller.

And once you notice that, you begin to notice all the other shifts that subtly occurred to make that work. For instance, Sarah is still the main focus of the show. However, the rest of the clones start to take over more and more prominent roles in the storyline.  Alison’s impending mental collapse finally comes to pass; Cosima gets her own conflict that centers on her and not how it affects Sarah; and it’s no coincidence that Helena alone deals with the Proletheans, the shadowy cult that had been plaguing all of the clones for the entire show, for the entire back half of the season. The other characters stories are finally no longer leaning on Sarah’s.

As a result of this, it feels like the writers are laying all of their cards on the table, to put it one way. Most mysteries don’t linger. In season one, we spent episodes wondering who was murdering the clones, what they wanted, who they worked for, what happened to Beth Childs, and so on. In season two, it’s rare for any “mystery” to last more than an episode. We find out a character thought dead is alive, and they turn up by the end of next episode. We see Sarah go to a mysterious stranger from her past for help, and know what his deal is within a scene or two. Siobhán disappears mysteriously in the first episode, and by the end of the episode, we’ve ruled out the predominant theory about it; by the next episode, we know more or less everything about it (as well as just about everything she knows about the circumstances as well).

The questions, compared to those in the first season, feel tangential, and more towards fleshing out our existing understanding of the status quo rather than building it up from scratch. The tension doesn’t come from finding out what’s going on, it comes from watching something happen and seeing how the characters, both good and bad, respond to it while trying to out-maneuver the other side in real time. For instance, in the last example I gave, we find out get a look into Siobhán’s actions that Sarah doesn't, so we know her motivations (well, we have a decent idea at least); the tension comes from Sarah’s uncertainties on the matter and whether she can piece everything together. Watching these interactions, and seeing the Clone Club try and stay ahead of the big, scary Dyad corporation or the Prolethean cult, or whatever other parties are out there, is what gives it a lot of the “conspiracy thriller” vibe.

I look forward to seeing if they continue with this new approach in my watch of season 3, or if they decide to branch out in a different direction yet again. 

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