Category Archives: Television

Things Long Overdue: ‘Orphan Black’ Comes to the UK (and I Write a Blog Post)

Note: Since this post is supposed to be a general introduction to Orphan Black, I’ve attempted to minimise detailed spoilers.

Easily one of the most distinctive new science fiction shows since the conclusion of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Orphan Black is a techno-thriller created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, produced by BBC America and Canada’s Space channel, and which originally aired in the spring, but is now available to watch in Britain for the first time.[1] With a vocal cult following in North America, the show’s central appeal, and its main strength, is in the phenomenal performance (or, rather, performances) of Tatiana Maslany in a break-out role (or, uh, roles) for the Canadian actress.

The premiere begins with orphan, grifter and general ne’er-do-well Sarah Manning (Maslany) returning to an unidentified city with mixed intentions: to make things right with her young daughter, Kira, and sell a package of cocaine she procured from ex-boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando), with the intention of raising the money to begin a new life with her child as well as her loyal foster brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris).[2] When Sarah encounters Beth Childs (also Maslany), a seemingly wealthy suicide who looks exactly like her, with Felix’s aid she steals the dead woman’s identity, but gets much more than she bargained for as the con throws up unexpected and dangerous complications.

Maslany doesn’t quite get to display the full range of her powers in this first episode, with Sarah’s doppelgängers flitting only briefly in and out of the story here at the start. However, this does serve to ground the more uncanny elements of the show thoroughly in Sarah’s experience, as she falls down the rabbit hole of Beth Childs’ unraveling life, and begins to uncover the threads which will lead to the secret tying the two of them together.

What the first episode does showcase, then, is the show’s other central strength: the rapid, and thrilling, escalation of its plot and the use of expertly constructed narrative set-pieces which ratchet up the tension and prove earlier on that the show doesn’t need to rely on violence for engaging action (though both this and later episodes have their share). Through ever more precarious improvisations in her disguise as Beth, as she attempts to hide the deception from key figures in the dead woman’s relationships, both professional and personal, Sarah finds that every victory only leads her to become more entangled in the complexities of a stolen life. Eventually, Sarah’s decisions further endanger her relationship with her daughter, and put her own life in peril. 

Like even the most illustrious of its predecessors, there are times throughout the show’s run so far where the more absurd elements of its emerging mythology threaten to displace the human drama, but the concrete foundation of its plot turns and revelations in the experiences of the central characters, and in Tatiana Maslany’s performances in particular, prevent it from becoming too disconnected from its audience. For while the murky world of Orphan Black is based around hidden conspiracies, weird science and secrets cults, its story hinges on something more elemental and essential: the fractious relationship between the deliberate choices people make, and the uncontrollable factors which influence them – empowering and limiting their actions in equal measure.[3]

Virtually everything that happens in the premiere emanates from the choices Sarah makes, beginning with stealing the handbag of a woman who stepped in front of a trains, yet she is also increasingly trapped both by her own choices, past and present, and by a greater history which she is on the cusp of uncovering. At the end of the show’s first hour, the stage is set for a fascinating season of television which confronts the variances of nature and nurture, and explores the eternal, irresolvable conflict between pre-determination and free will – not in abstract fashion, but in the material and immediate concerns of Sarah and those like her, despite their extraordinary circumstances.

OrphanBlackMorgue

Orphan Black premieres on BBC Three on Friday 20th September with a double bill at 9:00pm, but the first episode is currently available on iPlayer.

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[1] That’s not including the inessential 2010 Battlestar Galactica TV Movie The Plan, which unfortunately only served to show that there really was never much of one at all.

[2] With no effort made to disguise the CN tower, the city in question is implicitly Toronto, where production of the show takes place, yet it is an inexplicably Americanised version, most notably reflected in a depiction of police hierarchy which shares more with fictionalised depictions of American police departments in other TV shows than it does with the actual Toronto Police Service.

[3] Speaking of Orphan Black‘s murky world, the capturing of Toronto’s bleak skies and its elegant but cold modern buildings serves the show well in establishing a distinct texture and tone, which is at once both mundane and totally alien.

Falls the Shadow: ‘Mad Men’, T.S. Eliot, and the Problem of Perception

Contains spoilers for all five seasons of Mad Men

There’s a scene in ‘My Old Kentucky Home’,an early episode from Mad Men‘s third season, in which Paul Kinsey, copywriter and Sterling Cooper’s resident pretentious pseudo-intellectual, quotes the famous closing lines from ‘The Hollow Men’ while high on marijuana (as you do):

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.[1]

It’s a haunting conclusion to a haunting poem, but Kinsey’s apropos of nothing recitation lacks any real relevance or meaning, and fellow copywriter Smitty calls him out on his posturing: “We get it. You’re educated.” In contrast to the treatment of Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, which is pretty explicitly placed alongside both the Cuban Missile Crisis and Don’s personal issues, there’s no larger thematic point being made here. It’s just Kinsey being Kinsey.

I Tiresias

Yet there is resonance between Eliot’s poem and the show’s themes, I think. Kinsey, being a snobbish blowhard, gravitates towards the most overtly apocalyptic, portentous section of a pretty apocalyptic, portentous poem.[2] But in doing so, he misses the point, because Eliot wasn’t really writing about the end of the world, just as Mad Men isn’t really about advertising. That’s simply the imagery, the lens through which the poem’s (or the show’s) point is conveyed. ‘The Hollow Men’ is really about death, despair and the disconnect between the way we imagine things to be, and the way they actually are.[3] Or, as Eliot himself put it, between the idea and the reality.

Mad Men is hardly the first drama in history to play on the differences between perception and truth. Dramatic irony, that device where one character (and, by extension, the audience) knows something the other characters don’t, has been around for thousands of years – just look at the role of Tiresias in Oedipus Rex, who’s pretty much there to emphasise what the audience would already have known about Oedipus.[4] Today, I suspect it would be impossible to find a scripted show on television which doesn’t use dramatic irony at some point in its run. But through its setting, characters and themes, Mad Men actively explores the disparity at work here, rather than simply using it as a mechanism for drama.

The Hollow Man

Don Draper is not who he says he is. He was born Dick Whitman, and took the identity of the ‘real’ Don Draper after the latter died during the Korean War. Meanwhile, in the very first episode of the series, we’re introduced to Don the high-powered ad-man, the creative genius, the womaniser, and only at the very end do get a glimpse of Don the family man, the husband, the father. It’s a structure which works to subvert the audience’s expectation of Don, but it also means that, by the end of the episode, the audience knows more about Don than his family, even his wife, does. He leads a fractured life, and that’s part of what makes him a fascinating character – especially since he seems to prefer it that way.[5]

In a sense, Don has more than a little in common with Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, who was one of Eliot’s inspirations for writing ‘The Hollow Men’ and is referenced in the poem’s first epigraph: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.” Kurtz, like Draper, is known in-story for his powers of persuasion. He convinces the natives of the Congo that he’s a god and virtually comes to believe it himself, even while his physical form deteriorates. “He was”, Marlow observes, “very little more than a voice.” Has Draper become a hollow man like Kurtz, all grandeur and performance with nothing left inside? Not quite – at least, not yet. He comes close during season 4, becoming almost delusional about his appeal to women, even as his drinking problem takes a toll on his health. Only the death of Anna Draper pierces his armour and makes him comprehend how far he has fallen from his vision from himself. The shadow, temporarily at least, is lifted away.

The Carousel

The double life, the problem of perception, the disconnect between fantasy and reality, these are ingrained in the DNA of the show’s protagonist. By inserting him into an advertising agency, however, these themes are given room to be explored outside of Don’s own psyche. Don himself is profoundly aware of the power of self-delusion, just as he is certain of its necessity. Shortly after the depiction of the Kennedy assassination towards the end of season 3, Don comes to Peggy and explains why he wants her to work at SCDP:

Because there are people out there who buy things, people like you and me. And something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do.

The assassination of President Kennedy was, to the American people, as Anna Draper’s death would shortly become to Don. It stripped away the idea, leaving the cold reality in full view, that, as Don tells his mistress’s beatnik friends, “the universe is indifferent”. What Don sees in Peggy is someone who, like him, can recognise and make use of this problem of perception, even if she’s no more immune to it than he is.

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding one of the most powerful scenes in the series to be the pitch Don delivers to Kodak (link: here), in which he suggests nostalgia as a way of selling a slide projector. With scenes taken from his own family album, Don illustrates the concept of the projector as a ‘time machine’.The irony is, of course, the Don’s marriage has already begun to fall apart, and the slides represent a reality that doesn’t exist anymore and can’t be retrieved. This is all thrown into sharp relief by Harry Crane, who leaves the presentation in tears because he has cheated on his own wife earlier in the season, and recognises in Don’s pitch the gap between the idea of the idyllic family life on display and the reality of his own behaviour. Between the emotion and response, as Eliot says, Falls the Shadow.

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[1] This probably qualifies as an excessively tangential observation, even by my standards, but “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper” fascinates me as one of those phrases which seems to have gotten caught in the collective psyche of critics everywhere, and inevitably gets trotted out when, for example, the last film in a series performs underwhelmingly. See also: Macbeth‘s “tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing”, which crops up with alarming frequency whenever a Michael Bay film is released.

[2] Naturally, Kinsey also fails to realise the irony of quoting from a poem called ‘The Hollow Men’ when trying to impress people with superficial intellectualism.

[3] And possibly the Treaty of Versailles or Eliot’s own dissolving marriage, depending on who you ask.

[4] Eliot’s own fascination with Tiresias is, I think, not coincidental, especially with lines like “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives / Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see”. While, on one level, this is simply a reference to the myth about Tiresias being transformed into a woman for seven years by Hera, I wouldn’t be surprised if Eliot saw Tiresias’s double life as connected, at least thematically, to his ability to understand the ‘doubleness’ of existence, the perception and the truth.

[5] One of the emerging themes of the show’s current season seems to be how different elements of Don’s life are starting to converge, since he now has a wife who both works with him in the office and knows his original identity. Given Don’s response to the party Megan threw for him, with most of SCDP in attendance, a more integrated life might not suit him very well.

‘Dirk Gently’ Television Review: Has the creator of ‘Misfits’ succeeded in adapting the unadaptable?

The idea of adapting Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently novels for television sounds like a quixotic enough enterprise that it would fit right in with one of Adams’s own madcap narratives. The first book alone combines a missing cat, time travel, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, ghostly possession, J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, an Electric Monk from a distant future where belief is just another chore to be handled by machines, and a sofa lodged in a staircase, along with a murder or two, into a story about saving humanity from extinction. Nevertheless, Howard Overman, creator of E4’s hit series Misfits, has attempted to do the impossible, and a pilot episode was aired at the end of last year. The series was picked up for a further three episodes, which were broadcast on BBC Four earlier this month.

Overman’s strategy, more or less, was to strip the concept down to its core and rebuild it from the ground up. While avoiding a straight adaptation was certainly the best choice, inevitably lost in the process were Adams’s wry observations, along with the plethora of obscure references which frequently characterised his writing, and the Gently books in particular. Also removed are any references to paranormal activity (no pun intended), though some science fiction elements still remain. Richard MacDuff (Darren Boyd, seen giving a rather good John Cleese impersonation in Holy Flying Circus last year) has had his role as the Watson to Dirk Gently’s Sherlock Holmes beefed up, and their relationship is much more developed in the series, though it does occasionally come across as a little too imitative.

Of course, imitation is part of the point. Dirk Gently was always something of a parody of the ‘great detective’ figure. His methods are even more esoteric, his ‘holistic’ philosophy of “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things” a counterpoint to Holmes, the most famous of all the great detectives, and his rejection of ‘irrelevant’ information (such as, famously, his deliberate ignorance of astronomy). Slovenly, selfish, more adept at dodging bills and manipulating his clients than any kind of detective work, Gently is a dysfunctional detective par excellence, and the choice of Stephen Mangan (Green Wing) to bring Adams’s creation to life is easily one of the greatest strengths of the series. Mangan brings the right mix of guile and haplessness to the role, and clearly relishes the chaos of the series’ best moments.

Unfortunately, these moments are not quite frequent enough. In contrast to the books, which were short but overwhelmingly dense in detail, the series feels anaemic at times, with too little happening and too few jokes stretched out over too much time. Some of this listlessness, no doubt, is due to the budget, or lack thereof, which is hardly the fault of Overman and the creative team. But at other points the tone was just confused, the most egregious case of which being the second episode of the series, written by Matt Jones (which is disappointing, as he was responsible for one of the better stories of the revived Doctor Who‘s second series, the ‘Impossible Planet/Satan Pit’ two-parter). Rather than the witty farce of the books, the story becomes a kind of science-fiction romantic dramedy, and it was unclear how seriously the audience was supposed to take Dirk’s relationship with his university mentor, or the mysterious girl he meets, when surrounded by Adams-inspired ridiculousness.

Encouragingly, though, the third and final episode (by Jamie Mathieson, writer of Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel), is easily the best. The drama is far more subtle and the plot a much more successful parody of detective fiction than in the previous episodes, particularly highlights including Dirk’s revelation of the identity of his latest client’s stalker (both times) and his genre savvy reasoning for dismissing the most obvious suspect for the murders-of-the-week. Though the series as a whole may fall short of being a resounding success, moments like these lend the show a kind of anarchic charm, and with a little more consistency (and perhaps some judicious editing), there’s potential here for something quite brilliant indeed.

Arbitrary critic rating: 3 out 5 incongruously polished door plaques

Afterthoughts

  • Many of the key plot points in the original novel were inherited from Adams’s work on Doctor Who, most noticeably from fan favourite story City of Death, which he was responsible for rewriting into its current form, or from the incompleted serial Shada, whose production was abandoned due to industry strikes. Unsurprisingly, these elements were among those which did not feature in the adaptation.
  • While the series may place greater emphasis on MacDuff’s character, Adams demonstrated his ever-practical approach to continuity by taking the character, more or less the reader’s viewpoint of the first book, and discarding him without so much as a mention (that I can recall) in the sequel.
  • Though the only elements of the second book to get adapted involve Dirk’s lifestyle and, at a stretch, a paranoid client, I think it’s important to note that The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul is one of the best titles of anything ever.