‘Orphan Black’ proves important television can be fun

‘Orphan Black’ proves important television can be fun

Genre-based television shows suffer especially and the ignorance of critical bodies feels similar to reactions toward genre-based films or literature. Critics assume that because a work of art also fits within classifications of genre (such as horror or science fiction), it is no longer worthy of general praise. It is no longer respectable. But it is these works that audiences flock to and embrace. Genre-based works use high concept to address real-world issues. This is not deceitful; it is brilliant. Not every mind can do so and to do so successfully and well signals a true talent, one that appeals on a cultural and categorical level.

This is why Orphan Black, the new sci-fi television show from BBC America works so well. Orphan Black is the story of an orphan (Sarah, played by Tatiana Maslany) who witnesses the suicide of another woman (Beth) who looked just like her. Sarah assumes her identity and her problems soon escalate and unravel from there. Well, that is what it is like on the surface. Her journey reveals something far more complex and sinister: other women who also look just like her as well. Are they related, or clones, or something else? The show gets to the heart of the matter quickly and is thankfully not afraid to do so.

I believe that a perfect television show is one that encompasses the perfect combination of strong plot, continuous character development, sharp dialogue, and impenetrable mood. In part, the perfect television show is about world-building and Orphan Black builds a world that is so compelling because it feels real and true. All of this feels possible. Its possibility is eerie yet addicting.

The plot is fast-paced. wasting little time dragging out the storyline to create a longer show. I am reminded of another successful mainstream sci-fi television show and how it failed quite consistently in this aspect: LOST. I was a LOST fan from the beginning and can still speak positively about many of its aspects. But LOST aired on a broadcast network and the plot itself dragged on. Its mysterious conceit made audiences believe that anything revealed was significant to the story itself even though, in the end, we learned that a flashy moment here and there was in fact just a series of flashy moments.

Orphan Black, a BBC production, sticks to the successful model of other foreign television shows. There is no promise that a show will have a 24-episode first season or be renewed for a second. The writing then must be sharp, precise, and progressive. And it is. By the second episode, we are at the heart of the matter and the true questions can be asked and answered: Who else is out there? Who else knows what Sarah uncovers? Who can be trusted?

(Courtesy of BBC America)

Maslany is able to encompass each character she plays (and there are six of them) completely, leaving audiences mesmerized of her multiple transformations. Each character – from the abrasive suburban housewife Allison to the sweet-natured student Cossima – is fully fleshed out and an individual. One can often forget that this is in fact one woman playing so many different roles. Maslany’s skill as an actress and the strength of the characters (these are not just sketches) leave audiences ultimately wanting more.

Important Television (as the critics think to call it) is praised and dissected. Small props and single lines of dialogue are used to inform 500-word essays that speak philosophically about connections between the tangible and the intangible. And once they’ve been deemed Important, there is very little room (at least in the early stages) for others to criticize the show’s veracity or actual appeal. This is what is frustrating about the current television landscape. The critical desire to find new television shows that appear to be High Art has regretfully ignored the complex, challenging, and downright fun television that does not neatly fit into any one box.

I would argue that Orphan Black is Important Television because it is so good, because it is so well thought-out and complex and plot-driven. To keep audiences turning back each week, a successful creator must be attuned to what audiences want, what will keep them gripped to their screens and emotionally invested in the characters. Orphan Black does this because it does not dumb down its story or its aim for its audience. It believes that the audience will stick with them and rewards them for their dedication by giving them something to look forward to. Only the best television can.

Britt Julious blogs about culture in and outside of Chicago. Follow Britt’s essays for WBEZ’s Tumblr or on Twitter @britticisms.