Orphan Black — Take Two

My general “policy” when reviewing TV series for my Great Canadian Guide to the Movies and TV site is to watch at least three episodes before setting down an “official” opinion. After all, TV series can take a few episodes to find their legs, the actors to establish a rapport with each other and even with their own characters. Still, last time I wrote a piece commenting on the first episode of the new (light) science fiction series, Orphan Black. So just as a chronicle of my progressing opinion, I thought I’d now offer a second assessment after seeing the second episode.

I had commented that the pilot was pretty good and entertaining.

Sadly, the second episode drops in my estimation like the proverbial stone! To put it bluntly: I was actually kind of bored at times.

Now before we get to that, I want to first direct you to this review of the first episode (“Orphan Black: Shockingly Canadian, Shockingly Alright” by Alicia). Above and beyond her commenting on the story (and I’ll put aside my quibble about her writing that for a Canadian series it’s “shocking” it’s good) where it gets interesting is when she starts writing about what she perceives as certain ethnic and cultural stereotyping. I’m not sure that I entirely agree with her assessment, but what I like and admire is that she wrote it at all! That she weighed the series on her personal B.S. measuring scale and found it tilted a little to the side.

Too often Canadian film and TV can feel like it is cocooned from these socio-political debates. But a real entertainment industry has to be tough enough to be dragged out into the hard light and examined. For Canadian film and TV to matter…we have to be able to say that: y’know what? — these things matter!

Now, back to our regularly scheduled screed:

Orphan Black is a mystery-suspense series about Sarah — a fringe dwelling lass who assumes the identity of Beth, a dead woman who looked just like her. But Sarah also discovers there are a number of women who look just like her…and so the puzzle begins…

And the second episode of Orphan Black came close to losing me. Not really, of course. As I say: I tend to try and watch three or four episodes just to let the series find its sea legs.

First up: the pluses. Star Tatiana Maslany is a fine actresses, though even here the lead character of “Sarah” has already started to wear a bit thin (not a good sign as we’re only two episodes in). Once she starts meeting some clones, Maslany’s chops really come into play, as she expertly creates different characters just with a change a hair style and body language. The irony is she’s almost too good. It actually took me a moment in a couple of scenes to realize it was her!

(And just in the “neither good nor bad, but just worth noting” department: in the pilot there had been some nudity…in the second, there wasn’t — well, other than recycled in the opening “previously on” montage. So, I don’t know if that means they are just using nudity where it’s justified, or whether that means they only did it for the pilot, to make the series seem “edgy” and “sexy”, but never again).

There were problems.

I had mentioned last time that I’m always worried with these kind of series about where they go from the initial premise. There was an early scene in the second episode where Sarah is talking with her foster brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris) and the critical hairs started to rise on the back of my neck…because it felt like talking for the sake of talking, a scene for the sake of a scene. In short, padding. Like they weren’t quite sure where to go and were just trying to fill up the running time. And frankly, a lot of the episode felt that way.

By the second episode’s end we don’t know appreciably more about what’s going on than we did at the end of the first episode. Now, sure, you wouldn’t what them to play all their cards right away. But a good hand should have enough cards to play that you can start dealing them out and still have more up your sleeve (um…I think that analogy held together). No less than two scenes in the episode hinged on the “surprise” of Sarah coming face to face with another clone. But, um, that’s kind of the basic premise of the series. And we’d already done that — twice — in episode one! It just felt like there was a lot of wheel spinning going on.

And then I realized what was a major flaw with the episode.

For a suspense-thriller…there’s precious little suspense or thrills. The previous episode ended with Sarah being shot at by an unseen sniper. Don’t you think that would freak you out? Yet…at no point does Sarah really seem to be wandering the streets as though worried a bullet might come slamming into her at any moment. It’s as if after the excitement of the shooting (to carry us into the next episode) it was largely put from her mind.

The main “suspense” simply involves some overly insistent hotel staff and a worry her credit card might not clear!

Maybe part of the problem is that you have what, in a sense, should be a murky tale of conspiracy and paranoia…but one where next to none of the characters seem to have anything to do with the “main” suspense plot.

Oh, I’m willing to lay even money that there will be revelations to come. Maybe “Beth”‘s hunky boyfriend will turn out to be a plant. But based on the clues and information we have, there’s little undercurrent of brooding suspense, or “who can she trust?” suspicion.

Part of that may be because the creators see their series as being “above” simply being an X-Files wannabe. Maybe they see it as a drama…with occasional bursts of sci-fi and violence. Certainly there’s a big emphasis put on Sarah’s desire to reunite with her daughter, including a lengthy scene where Felix visits their foster mother, Mrs. S. (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Unfortunately, I’m not really finding that stuff that interesting either. If I wanted to play the gender card (and I shouldn’t, ’cause it’s ad hominem) I’d make the snarky remark that it’s almost like the male creators sat around saying: “Hmmm…what do chicks like? Chicks like kids. Let’s have it be Sarah’s all maternal or sumthin’.”

I always have trouble in TV series where the core emotional relationship/motivation…involves characters who don’t have scenes together. Whether it be separated lovers, or separated parents/children. And in most series where they’ve used it…the series gets cancelled quickly, or the writers drop it by the second season, recognizing it’s a dead end.

Mind you, it could be the creators are trying to be more ambitious than I’m giving them credit for. It’s not like Sarah is ideal parent material. Even Felix has questioned her capabilities! So maybe we’re supposed to see the whole “Sarah wants to get enough money to run off with her daughter” as being a highly dubious plan.

So two episodes in and I’m already not finding too much to put me on the edge of my seat, I’m losing my curiosity about where it’s headed, and I’m not sure I really care about the characters. Of course part of the problem is the world you come from. A lot of reviews have commented on how “strange” and “intriguing” it is. But if you grew up reading and watching a lot of sci-fi and techno-thrillers…so far this all feels a bit “No Name Brand” generic.

The acting is good in Orphan Black, it’s competently put together. But there was nothing that really stuck out for me here, in terms of that one witty line, that surprise twist, or that unanticipated scene that takes you somewhere you didn’t expect, emotionally. Just one or two of those things in an hour are all you need to refire the viewer’s interest and get them back on your team. There was nothing wrong with the writing in the second episode…but nothing really notable either.

There were also some technical problems. The most glaring was the whole foster mother thing. Now I may be wrong, but if a foster parent packed up and moved to another country (as Mrs. S. did)…would she be taking her foster kids with her? Or would the state reassume responsibility for them? Now I understand this is a Canada-U.K. co-production, so they wanted a U.K. element on screen, with characters sporting various U.K. accents. But that doesn’t mean you just toss logic out the window. Maybe they should’ve had it be they had been adopted by her. Or maybe they emigrated at separate times.

Now I repeat: I could be entirely wrong on this. But if I’m not, it’s one of those things that sticks out as being, well, lazy plotting. And if they’re lazy in one area, it makes you worry about the rest. *

Which then brings us to my usual hobby horse: Canadian identity.

It seems pretty obvious now that all those reviewers who claimed the series was set in Canada…had the wool pulled over their eyes by the producers. At this point it’s clear they are committed to an “Anytown, North America” vibe. By that I don’t mean they are saying it isn’t set in Canada…they just aren’t going to say that it is. Or, at least, are going to toss contradictory clues at you.

I mentioned in my last post how in the pilot they deliberately obscure currency so you can’t tell it’s Canadian, and they name drop American cities, and Sarah’s police superior is a “lootenant”.

The kicker this episode was when Sarah is perusing a police report and the official letter head reads simply: “Metropolitan Police Department.” Riiiighhht. Yeah, see, I’m pretty sure police letter heads, and any municipal document, would include the NAME OF THE CITY. So it’s obvious they are verrryyy reluctant to identify what city, and what country, the story takes place in.

But they throw a few bones our way. The characters do refer to the Toronto suburb of Scarborough a few times. Why are they willing to refer to Scarborough…but not Toronto itself?

I’m glad ya asked. Let me give you a lesson in how the “Anytown, North America” model works.

Scarborough isn’t a uniquely Canadian name. There are a few Scarborough’s in the world (Simon & Garfunkel sang a whole song about another one!) So a Canadian can see the reference to Scarborough as “identifying” the setting as Canada…while Orphan Black’s creators are hoping viewers in the U.S. will just assume it’s a neighbourhood outside an unnamed U.S. city. Unlike names like Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec, Medicine Hat, etc. which are a bit more identifiably Canadian.

That’s why, dollars to donuts, if in a future episode the story involves a federal politician, he will be a “senator”…because that’s a political term shared by Canada and the U.S. and wouldn’t reveal the series’ Canadian setting the way an “MP” or “Cabinet Minister” would.

And where you can see a clear double standard is in the fact that, as I alluded earlier, the lead characters are explicitly from the U.K. Apparently it’s okay to give the characters U.K. accents…but it’s not okay to explicitly set the series in Canada.

Well, that’s me after episode two of Orphan Black. I’m not holding out much hope for a sudden explosion of Canadiana in the weeks to come…but hopefully the series itself can recapture my interest as simple entertainment.

(*Addendum, Apr. 16In the third episode they did, indeed, address the whole foster/adoption thing in a bit of — it seemed to me — awkward exposition. So I’m guessing somewhere between episode one and episode three someone on the series’ staff pointed out the same thing I did.)

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