Thursday, May 07, 2015

How to ruin a TV series

As many of you loyal readers of this blog (who pay attention) know, 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.

This year there are also male clones. They have their own conspiracy, one of Tatiana’s clones is held captive in a trunk by some other evil organization that may or may not be affiliated with the evil research lab, or the cult, or Enron. Meanwhile, one of Tatiana’s clones has nothing to do with the central plot. She’s a housewife selling drugs to other housewives so can she win an election to get on the school board. I know – HUH??? And for good measure, she has a dead body in her garage that doesn’t smell and no one is looking for the guy. Unlike Tatiana’s portrayal of the women clones who are all different, the male clones are essentially the same. They don’t even bother to change hair color or give one of them glasses. So you have no clue as to who is who or even how many of them there are and what they’re trying to achieve and for who.

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?


James T. Aubrey said...

This has nothing to do with Ken's post, but it bears announcing.

Fox has cancelled THE MINDY PROJECT.

To lovers of comedy, this is the greatest news since the birth of Nat Hiken.

Jim S said...


Orphan Black made the fatal mistake of falling in love with a conspiracy. That never works. Shows that were great in the first season just ran off the rail – Heroes, Lost.

The problem is that the answer never lives up to the hype of the question.

Total said...

Writer's draft versus reader's draft. When students do big research projects, they tend to produce rough drafts that _they_ can understand because, well, they've been working on the thing for awhile. For everyone else? Not so much.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Sounds like David Lynch is a consulting producer on ORPHAN BLACK. Used to enjoy reading Sepinwall when he was writing for the Ledger.

Rowan said...

Ken, important point you made there. I too love Orphan Black, but it seems each season they are trying to outdo the last one with more intricate plotting that gets more and more muddled. Far too many characters doing small things. I don't even see the point of Paul this season. Maybe they will be able to right the ship, but they won't if they don't see how far into the weeds they're getting.

James T. Aubrey - You may have disliked the Mindy Show, but I don't see delight in its demise, because it looks like it will be continued to be produced on Hulu. It's owned by Universal TV and they want to get it into syndication, so the show is in talks to air online for at least one more season.

CamrioKid said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your review of my once-beloved ORPHAN BLACK. I was hooked Season 1 because of the story line and the phenomenal performance of Tatiana Maslany. Season 2 fell way off. I watched only to marvel at Tatiana's incredible ability to pull off such and acting marvel. Season 3...well, the story is awful, and watching just for Tatiana's acting is wearing very thin. I sure hope they look back at their Season 1 roots and simplify a bit. Tatiana is still amazing!

Dylan Baker said...

Many recent top-tier series have deteriorated rapidly.

Downton Abbey after season two and Broadchurch after season one.

Orange Is The New Black is a shadow of its first season following their inexplicable decision to minimalize Piper's story, and all but write out Pornstache.

The Walking Dead was great for about six episodes, which was precisely how long Frank Darabont held the reins. Coincidence? I think not.

And for the life of me I can't figure out how anyone has enjoyed the last two seasons of Game Of Thrones. Yawn.

It can't be that hard surely, The Practice was absolutely top notch until the end, and virtually every episode was written by David E, Kelley... while he wrote HUNDREDS of episodes for other shows.

Paul Duca said...

And STILL found time to be married to Michelle Pfeiffer...

Anonymous said...

Alan Alda joined Twitter, FYI.


Anonymous said...

I agree Season 2 was so-so.
She's an amazing actress.

Office is busy today. I think I have 8 or 9 scripts to read for the boss. Did not count yet. Another busy day. Tired. But more coffee please.

Keep re-writing
and enjoy the journey of writing

mmryan314 said...

I haven`t seen Orphan Black but I feel the same way about Lilyhammer. The series started out on a humorous " duck out of water" pretense kind of like the Steve Martin movie, My Blue Heaven. Season two drifted to dumb.

Gary West said...

It's always a treat to read this blog, but today's is so worthy of triple thumps-up.

And just think - it only took three seasons. It's a lesson for all of us - keep the audience in mind.

That goes triple for us who run small businesses. Believe me - there is a correlation. It's so easy to get caught up in what "you" think is best. A little "bottom-up" strategy wouldn't hurt.

For TV - the trend seems to be, outdoing the last episode (s): keep raising the bar until no one has a clue.

Hamid said...

It's very timely that you've posted this today. This news was just announced:

BBC America announced today the renewal of its award-winning original series “Orphan Black” for a fourth season. The drama, starring Tatiana Maslany, has been re-commissioned for a 10 episode order from Temple Street Productions and is slated to air in 2016.

Jeff Greenstein said...

Sadly, I have to agree with Ken on this one, but I should add that an additional problem with the show is "fan service," i.e. writers adding scenes or plot points because they think it'll get people excited on Twitter. Nobody needed a Clone Dance Party. And adding a slew of male clones featuring an inferior actor... well, that's when they lost me.

blinky said...

Joe Lunchpail here.
Tatiana Maslany is the star and should be the focus of the show, period. Her 7 (or 8 or is it 9?) characters should do a spin off where they go to a desert island and we can just have them interact with each other. And maybe there is another clone that is a surfer. OMG! Wouldn't that be awesome?

Anonymous said...

Thank goodness someone else feels the same. Conspiracy shows are impossibly hard to keep going because the only way you can answer the questions you set up is dig yourself into a constantly deeper and deeper hole. The acting is still solid, especially when all the sisters are together and having a moment of fun, but even those scenes aren't great because they lack an interesting context. I know a show is losing me when I start checking my Facebook comments on my phone while watching. I just keep hoping they'll fix it even though I'm pretty sure they won't. Hope Tatiana Maslany gets something really good to follow this with.
-Marv W

cd1515 said...

also don't get why someone would celebrate the cancellation of a show.
I've never seen the Mindy project and certainly don't care about it, but how can you be happy that all those people are now out of work?
if you didn't like the show, don't watch.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,

Just about to start S3 of Orphan Black & now I'm not too excited. I agree with you about S2- just got way off course, loved S1.

As someone posted earlier-conspiracy shows lose their legs quick. To this day I'm still mad at myself for watching all 6 years of LOST. What a letdown. Same with Heroes. The Walking Dead was truly great its first 12 or 13 eps, now it's just OK to good. It lives on its name and fandom.

Once a show loses its fastball it's hard to get back. --LL

PS- you & Sepinwall are the 2 best TV people bloggers in the whole, wide world!

Gary Benz said...

I agree about Orphan Black and it breaks my heart. The show is just about impossible to explain to anyone not otherwise engaged in it and, actually, is just about impossible to explain to anyone engaged in it. It's heading down the X Files sink hole where the conspiracy overtakes the more interesting stories underneath.

Jason said...

I watched OB based on your recommendation and it was fantastic. I was waiting for the DVD of the 3rd season, but now..

":(" does not fully convey the emotion

John in Ohio said...

Another example of the conspiracy overtaking the show - Alias. Nice little brainless show with a slightly different take on the spy genre turns into ... I don't know what. I quit watching.

@Jeff G - fan service is most often tied to T&A on marginal or brainless shows. Castle does a show that requires Becket in a bikini, The A Team would rescue a beauty queen during sweeps, Jennifer Garner is in red and black lingerie after the Super Bowl, etc.

@Dylan It can't be that hard surely, ... every episode was written by David E, Kelley
That's like saying "It can't be that hard, Oscar Robertson averaged a triple double, everyone should be able to get at least a few." Some people are just better than everyone else.

Ben K. said...

A lot of shows simply don't know what to do after the first season. "Prison Break" floundered after the gang, well, broke out of prison, and the writers had to build up ever-bigger conspiracy plots and find new prisons for them to break out of. "Revenge" started out as a fun, simple story about a woman trying to take revenge on the people who harmed her family, then after the first season turned into a typical nighttime soap in which all the characters eventually screwed, or screwed over, all the others. (And then the one character whose demise spurred the entire story was discovered to be alive.) The third season of "House of Cards" was boring, because who cares about an amoral lead character fighting his way to the top of American politics when he's already reached it? Maybe a lot more American shows should follow the British model, and stop making new episodes when they run out of story, rather than waiting till people stop watching.

Doug said...

I totally agree about Orphan Black but I will try to keep watching.I am almost about to close out on Game of Thrones.Too many story lines.My sister has read the books and tries to educate me.

House of Cards has definitely slipped.The British version was much better anyways.

Do we really need the X Files to return?

As for 'great' shows ... Bates Motel and The Americans.Vera Farmiga and Keri Russell are really good!

Ken ... the Mariners promise of spring is starting to fade.Hernandez and four days of rain.Oh ... Safeco Field has a roof ... never mind.

Cap'n Bob said...

Funny you should mention Scientology. One of the actresses on the show belongs to that esteemed group of morons.

G.S. in SF said...

I only hope the same fate does await my beloved French show "The Returned" -- the premise is so eerie that I wonder if it can live up to the hype. Apparently the second season was even postponed for the producers to figure out where to go. I do not get how all these shows can start with a mystery and have absolutely no clue how it ends. At least Breaking Bad knew where it was going and got to it. If a show should only last 12 or 20 episodes so be it... but tell a story and be done. At least the British 'Office' knew to be quick about it.

Off-topic Friday question: In thinking about Frasier his job was a radio talking head, yet very few stories I can recall focus at all on his relationship with the listeners. Were discussions ever held about broadening the show to include a listener or two as minor side characters on-screen (sort of like Bob Newhart with his patients)? Or to do a few episodes on the talk-show host/audience relationship? With your DJ experience there must have been some comedic stories to mine (non-stalkers hopefully).

John in Columbus said...

Friday Question: Can you tell us the inside scoop behind the celebrity callers on Frasier? How were they chosen? How many of them initiated the request to be on the show? There were some that were very surprising - Art Garfunkel, for example.

ODJennings said...

Person of Interest is another poster child for a series gone wrong.

It started simply enough--nerd genius designs computer that can predict crimes before they happen. Nerd and tough guy sidekick use this information to prevent crime from actually happening.

Now it's good guys vs bad guys, bad guys who are good, good guys who are bad, and God knows what else because I've completely lost the thread, and now I just watch Forever on ABC instead.

emily said...

Yes, Person of Interest definitely lost its fastball...curve and slider...about a year ago.

Anonymous said...

It's HEROES all over again - hyped to fuck, then just couldn't keep up its momentum and got desperate...

Thomas Mossman said...

If or when a new Star Trek series makes it to air, a lot of people on Trek forums are of the opinion that it needs to fit modern storytelling; that is, long and complex story arcs, dealing with modern themes. A series that had once been ahead of its' time had eventually fallen behind, and become stale and repetitive.

While it's true that Star Trek fell behind the times in terms of its' storytelling, I don't know that long arcs are the answer. Honestly, just tell modern stories with a modern sensibility. Some fans think this will kill Trek, but it's always been a reflection of the era in which it's produced. Even the timeless elements of the Original Series are couched in a setting that screams "60'S!"

Barry Traylor said...

No pun intended but shows like LOST lost my appetite for conspiracy shows. The main reason is that either the show is cancelled before it reveals the BIG SECRET or it angers me the way the aforementioned LOST did.

Bob in the UK said...

Haven't started on s3 of Orphan Black yet, but I quite enjoyed s2 for the ride on the basis that it had decided to be an impenetrable mess of conspiracy nonsense, so why even try to penetrate it? Watched in that way it was quite good fun.

As an aside, the weirdest thing about Maslany's performance(s) on OB is that she plays multiple secondary characters really well (Alison is my favourite), but her Sarah is awful, with that Dick Van Dyke/Simon Moon accent and just generally unconvincing. You'd think the actress and producers would focus on the main character being the best performance, but oddly not.

RobEB said...

LOVED the first season of OB, Season Two was just OK, but still fun. I've watched the first three episodes of Season Three, and I am hopelessly lost.

We gave up on The X-Files after a while. Something would happen, and my wife and I would look at each other and say "What?" We'd back it up and re-watch it, and STILL not get it. When you spend more time backing up the show than actually watching it, you know it's time to bail...

Anonymous said...

Yes! And thanks for saying so.

Johnny Walker said...

I haven't watched ORPHAN BLACK but this seems an inherent problem with shows that hinge on a central mystery (see LOST). Once you're forced to extended a story for an inordinate amount of time, "tap-dancing" (as the LOST showrunners referred to it) appears inevitable. The plot becomes convoluted simply because you're having to invent new plot to fill up the time.

It's a big shame, but unless they're going to conclude the central mystery early (which, as TWIN PEAKS illustrated back in the 90s, doesn't tend to end well) they need to take a leaf out of LOST's book and focus on telling character-centric stories (while keeping the central mystery alive).

It's a shame more networks don't let the showrunners decide when to end their stories -- I wonder if there's more money to be made from a perfectly constructed show that finishes well, or from a show forced to continue past its natural length that fizzles out?

M said...

I love what Person of Interest has been doing the past couple years. They've fumbled a bit since their mid-season break this year -- 4x11 "If-Then-Else" was their last great episode, with a couple more late this season -- but not as consistently good as seasons 2 and 3 were.

Hopefully the next couple years they'll wrap up the show and make it as consistently awesome as the second and third seasons.

Michael said...

I think the creator's of "Orphan Black" have fallen victim to one of the classic blunders... only slightly behind "Never get involved in a land war in Asia" and "Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line"; they have committed the mistake of too much Helena. The character is like Faith on Buffy--invigorating in small doses, grating as a central figure. Worse, they appear to be doubling down on it.

AJ Muller said...

I guess I'm the only one who liked S2 just as much as the first, and has no problem with this season so far. I don't find it horribly difficult to follow, and when I AM confused about something, I remember that when that happened in the first 2 seasons, it was usually by design. The show answered my questions at its own speed, and I always had enough information to follow along and enjoy it greatly as I did so.
I'm not saying I'm right -- my opinion is just that, mine, and I'm sorry there seem to be a fair number of people the show isn't pleasing anymore. Hopefully it turns around enough for you guys to be entertained again; that's what I'll hope for, anyway...for the sake of people who aren't, you know, me --