I’ve praised ORPHAN BLACK to the heavens. This little underground thriller/sci-fi on BBC-America (and now on AMC as well) introduced us all to the wondrous Tatiana Maslany – a luminous actress who plays multiple clones, each one distinctive and memorable.
In the pilot, Tatiana, as character Sarah, has a chance encounter with an identical clone… who commits suicide. That gets your attention. If we started BIG WAVE DAVE’S that way we might still be on the air.
Anyway, from there the series is off and running… and chasing and hiding. Sarah discovers other clones and a delicious mystery unfolds. Who is behind all of this, why is someone is trying to kill her, who, and why aren’t they targeting the Kardashian girls instead? The plotting swept you along and you enjoyed the twists, turns, and occasional flashes of humor. And just watching Tatiana was a treat.
Season two wasn’t as good. The conspiracy started becoming unwieldy. There were sinister research labs, a weird cult (Scientology in a barn), and fragments of backstory that go back to England or perhaps Middle Earth. Lots of characters from season one who you wondered – were they good guys or bad guys – this year they started flip flopping so much you stopped caring. Like I said in a past review, just assume everyone is a bad guy and enjoy the ride.
Fanboy geek that I am, I was really looking forward to season three.
But alas, four weeks into it I have concluded the show is now a fucking mess. The plotting is so confusing you need to build another Enigma machine to decipher it. And even then there's no guarantees.
Add to this the fact that most characters mumble on the show. So someone will say an important piece of information and you’re going “What?!”
Like I said, an utter fucking mess. I’m not sure I’ll slog it all the way to the end of the season. And this used to be my favorite show.
The takeaway here is that if the audience can’t follow the STORY you’re dead. Great acting and cinematography can carry you only so far. But if the viewer is not invested in the story he’ll move on to something else. I think this was somewhat true of the Netflix edition of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. The story looped around and inside-out and even ardent fans gave up on trying to follow it. Lots of brilliant jokes didn’t land because the viewers were struggling just to orient themselves.
In the writers room the staff will talk endlessly about their characters and plot. They know and debate every tiny detail. To them everything makes sense no matter how dense the plot. And they have index cards on the wall for easy reference. In short, they LIVE in this world.
But Joe Lunchpail or Ken Levine does not. We have way more things to keep straight in our heads. Little items like our LIVES. And if I’m going to devote an inordinate amount of time and attention to uncovering an insidious organization it will be the IRS, not Dyad Industries.
TV critic Alan Sepinwall asked the show’s creators whether their plotting had become a little too Byzantine and they said no. They used as their yardstick whether the crew could follow everything and they said they could. That’s like New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick saying his playbook was not confusing because his coaching staff all understood it. Seriously, who are we kidding?
The note I never mind is when someone says they don’t understand something in my script. When a network suit says she doesn’t like this line because it makes the character seem mean I just blow it off. But if a story point or character motivation is unclear I need to address it. Even if I’m explained it – if that explanation is unclear or doesn’t register it still needs adjustment. It doesn’t matter that I understand it. YOU have to understand it.
Now more than ever, the storytelling on TV dramas has become more sophisticated and intricate. Subjects are dealt with in greater depth. This makes for way more satisfying viewing than watching the A TEAM beat the shit out of some idiot every week. But there’s also a real danger that writers are going to get too dense, too clever and fall too deep into their own rabbit hole. ORPHAN BLACK has gone from tall tale to cautionary tale. Aren’t clones confusing enough?