Orphan Black: The Good, The Bad…and The Canadian

Recently the Space Channel has premiered a new sci-fi thriller called Orphan Black — and in a rarity for Canadian TV, it actually seems to be getting a fair amount of press coverage. That may be partly because many of the reviews have been really good.

So far it’s more an urban thriller with hints of strangeness. The premise is a drifter, Sarah (Tatiana Maslany), witnesses a suicide who looks exactly like her. And faster than you can say “Sarah Michelle Gellar in last season’s Ringer” she has adopted the dead woman’s identity. But there are mysteries to be found. The biggest being the physical similarity of the two women which is where the science fiction aspect comes into play.

The pilot episode was slick, well produced, and with even supporting characters having unexpected shading. And three dimensional characters are what separates the men from the boys in good drama. The series is clearly trying to tap into a similar audience as the Canadian-made Lost Girl, with a feisty heroine, and mix of fantasy and urban counter culture. Maslany is an actress who had been on my radar for a few years and doesn’t disappoint here. While Jordan Gavaris steals few scenes as her gay foster brother, the two enjoying a natural chemistry.

“Made-for-cable” can encompass a variety of parameters these days, so the occasional profanity isn’t surprising. But a bit of sex and nudity is…particularly as even lead Maslany doffs her togs (for, more or less, narratively justified reasons). Whether Maslany only agreed to do it once to bolster the pilot…well, boys (and the girls that swing that way) can only wait and see. And there’s some male nudity on display, too.

The pilot of Orphan Black was quite good, juggling suspense with human drama.

However I’m cynical enough to remember other great pilots I’ve seen that petered out after a few episodes. I’m also cognizant enough of the burdens of narrative to be able to step back and ask, “Okay, but what next?” TV producers can be focused on how their series starts…and can turn out to have no idea what to do with it once it’s actually running.

In the case of Orphan Black I’m just wondering where it’s going to be in, say, ten episodes. The problem with a long term mystery is keeping the episodes-of-the-week interesting. For that matter, Orphan Black can be likened to the series Ringer. I liked Ringer…but it only limped through one season before cancelation.

And even though I liked Orphan Black’s pilot…it wasn’t breaking any ground with its assumed identities or secret cloning projects. That’s just a problem with getting older…a guy like me has watched a lot of TV and movies (funnily, I had been toying with an idea in the same ballpark a few years ago). To be fair…we are just talking about a single episode so far.

Heck, given the “cable” nature of the series, perhaps they could’ve thrown in a twist that instead of Sarah discovering her doppleganger has a boyfriend…she discovers she had a girl friend! (That would certainly have put a spin on the scene where she distracts her suspicious lover with an impromptu bout of love making!) Hey — I’m just saying’.

So though I’m certainly on board with the critical consensus that Orphan Black delivered a smart, interesting opening episode…I’m grown up enough to know the real proof of the pudding will be if we’re all still saying that a few episodes down the line.

Which brings us all the way to the “cultural identity” theme that I beat away at like I’m cleaning a rug.

Orphan Black is set in Canada

(Wait for it)

..sort of.

The makers will tell you it’s set in Canada…even as they are twisting themselves into pretzels to obscure that fact. There’s something kind of embarrassing about the grown men and women making Orphan Black preening with pride over how cleverly they manage to obscure the fact that it’s Canada. It kind of makes me feel like doing what the heroine does in the conference room scene (you’ll know it when you see it).

There were a couple of close ups of a Canadian driver’s license…that was necessitated by the plot. I suspect the creative people gnashed their teeth and struggled frenziedly to come up with some way of avoiding it. I’m cynical enough to bet they probably considered dummying up a fake ID with no tell-tale markings…but then realized few viewers would even notice the blurry text above the photo ID image.

A few weeks back I wrote a piece (posted at Huffington Post) cheekily suggesting a “Drinking Game” as a way of noting the number of Canadian vs. non-Canadian references in Canadian TV series. I’ve also written before about the little tricks and gimmicks filmmakers use to obscure a Canadian setting.

Orphan Black used a few.

Place names: at a train station it’s announced that the next stop will be “New York”. Later in the episode, the boyfriend arrives from Cleveland. At no point do they say what city the heroine is actually in! (For that matter…aren’t Canadian train announcements usually repeated in both official languages?)

The Currency Fold: Maslany does the ol’ “currency fold” whereby an actor, when holding Canadian bills, carefully folds them up in a closed hand so the viewer can’t really make out any markings. Still later — and this was a new one for me — a stack of bills are repeatedly shown from the side! So you can tell it’s money…you just can’t tell what money.

Pronunciation: Lieutenant is pronounced the American way (and I have a vague feeling, though I could be wrong, that lieutenant isn’t even a rank in most Canadian police departments).

The cinematographer didn’t just “happen” to shoot the stack of the bills from the side. The writer didn’t just “happen” to cite Cleveland. The sound editor didn’t “forget” to repeat the train announcement in French. The intention was to make it ambiguous enough that most viewers would mistake it for the United States.

And here’s the problem with that:

Orphan Black has been getting reviews saying it’s entertaining, it’s slick, it’s world class. Apparently it premiered to top drawer ratings! As such, it could be kicking down doors for Canadian entertainment and Canadian culture. Defiantly saying to the world “We’re Canadian…deal with it motherf*****s!”

Instead Orphan Black’s creators are happy to be like the minorities of yesteryear: the ethnic who can pass for WASP, the homosexual in a straight marriage. They’ll whisper under their breath they are Canadian while praying everyone assumes they aren’t. Even in this review American critic Maureen Ryan referred to Orphan Black simply being “shot” in Canada…as opposed to it being a Canadian series.

Which brings up an interesting caveat to all this. A number of reviewers — including American and other non-Canadians — do recognize Orphan Black is made in Canada, even associating it with almost a trend of popular Canadian-made fantasy/SF series like Lost Girl and Continuum. Which is where it gets weird. So the makers of these series go out of their way to obscure the Canadian setting — Lost Girl I don’t think has ever admitted where it’s set, while Continuum has admitted it’s set in Vancouver but tends to avoid overt “Canadianisms” (ie: anything that would remind the viewer Canada isn’t just a 51st state). Supposedly they do this because it would hurt the success of these shows if they did…yet then it turns out reviewers are aware they are made in Canada. So, um…why be so coy about it on screen? Is the pressure not coming from outside (as has long been claimed) but internal? Self-loathing Canadians who are embarrassed to be Canadian?

Now I can hear the counter response: if people internationally are becoming (vaguely) aware of these as Canadian productions…doesn’t that indicate my whole argument about lack of Canadian identity is irrelevant?

It gets back to my earlier comparison to any minority. If someone sees a Jewish stand up comic and says, “Gosh, he was great…you’d never even know he was Jewish!” Most of us would see that as kind of creepy and racist, if the only way someone would accept a Jewish entertainer is if they didn’t have to deal with the fact that he was Jewish.

If Canadian series are starting to make people, globally, stand up and take notice of Canadian creativity…but nonetheless still soft-pedal their Canadianness on screen, aren’t they, essentially, just trying to “pass for white”? I think it’s culturally corrosive, and sending the message abroad that, hey, if even Canadian filmmakers don’t really want to admit they’re Canadian…then there must be something really bad about Canada.

British filmmakers have a “brand”…Canadian filmmakers are still happy to just be known as Hollywood-lite.

It’s precisely because Orphan Black is boasting good reviews, and fronted by charismatic Canadian actors, that its unwillingness to be more forthright about its Canadianness is disappointing. Because they had a chance to knock down barriers and open doors for the next Canadian TV series. But they chose not to. Like their main character, they chose to hide behind a false identity.

At least for now. After all, I’m just ranting like this after one episode…so we’ll see whether that was just about getting the door open, and whether subsequent episodes will be more honest about where it’s set, and who they are.

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8 Responses to Orphan Black: The Good, The Bad…and The Canadian

  1. Nada says:

    Well, if the final approval for the show came fron the UK (BBC), that makes it a british show!

    • Administrator says:

      The creators, cast and crew are mostly Canadian, it’s made by a Canadian production company for BBC America and Canada’s Bell Media. By most definitions that makes it Canadian, or at leas t an international co-production. Not that I’m sure how that relates to any point I was trying to make.

  2. Pingback: Reassessing BBC America’s ‘Orphan Black’ | TV Tyrant

  3. Karen says:

    I don’t think it really goes out of it’s way to prove it’s not Canadian. I can see Toronto in almost all shots (the CN Tower is in a shot in the first episode). It even acknowledges that one of the characters lives in Scarborough. I just don’t see how the city name has anything to do with the characters. I do, however, see your point that many cities in the US are mentioned while the only Canadian name I’ve heard is Scarborough. However the street names they mention are all Toronto streets and we see many addresses (333 Bay Street).

    • Administrator says:

      You’re right that there’s a bit of give-and-take setting-wise (funnily, I’ve thought it looks like Toronto more than a lot of series that are explicitly set there don’t!) But my point is it’s still meant to be ambiguous — not just the city, but the country. And in interviews the makers themselves have admitted this is on purpose, so it’s not just me conjuring up outlandish conspiracy theories lol.

      Setting (and identity) is part of storytelling, from the Sunnydale, California of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, the whole USA of “The X-Files” (though it was often filmed in Vancouver), or the Louisiana of “True Blood”. If the makers of “Orphan Black” truly believed place and identity was irrelevant…the characters wouldn’t have British accents and they wouldn’t make references to US cities and the whole thing would transpire in a surreal No Man’s Land.

  4. Paul says:

    I was convinced the show was set in the US but wasn’t sure where it was filmed. I knew it was basically a Canadian production so I thought it could have been filmed in Canada but I was still sure this was set in the US. I’m not familiar with the Toronto cityscape so thanks for clearing that up.
    I agree with what you are saying. If this was set in the US or UK we would have seen the Stars and Stripes or Union Jack respectively in at least one of the shots.
    Does Canada have Soccer Moms?
    Still it’s a great show and the Beeb have renewed it for a second season. Will we find out where it is set then………?

    • Administrator says:

      Yeah, Canada has “soccer moms”, too (though the cliché would be hockey, soccer is definitely valid). It will be interesting to see if, with the series’ success, it will feel confident to be more openly Canadian in season two.

  5. G Sernich says:

    Oh gee, what a disappointment to hear ‘Lieutenant’ pronounced with US pronunciation. I was so into the first episode, but that was a real clanger. I did note that one shot of Elizabeth’s ID card was in both English and French. I sure hope some of these posted comments find their way to the producers of Orphan Black.