Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few more thoughts on TV series

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I recently got my hands on the first few seasons of “Orphan Black”—and was initially very impressed: A novel concept, wonderful performances* by Tatiana Maslany, and characters put into interesting situations (see excursion below). Series like these prove that it is not necessary to just dust of the same old idea or franchise to squeeze out a few extra dollars. (Cf. previous posts, e.g. [1].)

*She plays a handful of central characters, and another handful of less central, that are clones, managing to bring over so different personalities and traits that, looks aside, they might as well be played by different actresses. She even, on several occasions, plays one clone pretending to be the other in a manner in a realistic manner, actually hitting A-pretending-to-be-B. (Similar scenarios often end up with an actor/actress playing this almost exactly as either A or B, or sometimes trying to do a realistic A-pretending-to-be-B and failing badly.)

However, approaching the middle of the second season, I am less enthusiastic, the series having lost some of its initial strengths and entered several hackneyed conspiracy and intrigue lines. The Dyad institute might be unavoidable, seeing both that its works are central to the premise of the show, including explaining why there are clones, and that some type of antagonist is needed. The Proletheans, on the other hand, are just unnecessary. Similarly, what is the point of turning “Mrs. S” from a more-or-less regular foster parent into an extremely shady, possibly criminal, possibly terrorist, character, with involvement in the clones’ early history? Why not try the novel idea of not having every second character have a “surprising” dark past?

This is paralleled by my very recent watching of the fifth season of “Grimm”: While never a candidate for an all-time great, it remained quite enjoyable while it focused on the “monster of the week” format and the exploration of the series mythology. However, it had had long excursions into global intrigues and whatnot, and with the fifth season this area exploded—as did the cliches. We now have a state of semi-war between various parties, the hero’s former girl-friend going “Dark Phoenix” and working for a secret organization, several secret organizations, an extremely powerful magic child causing trouble,… The destruction of the “Wesen Council” is not only a hackneyed destruction-of-the-potential-saviors/-allies-in-advance, it also very closely parallels the specific destruction of the “Watchers’ Council” on “Buffy”. The events of the penultimate episode took me to the point that I did not even bother watching the last episode—and will not bother with the concluding sixth season. A particular weakness, committed by many other series, is the explosion of the number of originally rare beings (here “wesen”*), to the point that it would be virtually impossible for “civilians” not to be aware of them, had they existed in reality.

*One point that annoyed me from the start: This German import, roughly “being”, is invariably pronounced like the word “wessen” (“whose”). Foreign pronunciations can be hard, but when one specific term is used several-to-many times per episode, the minimal effort of just once asking someone proficient in German for feedback is not too much to ask. (Virtually all German words used in the series are mangled or semi-invented, but most are used in just one or several episodes, and most are used by speakers who, in a real-life scenario, could not be expected to know better. “Wesen” is mispronounced even by the wesen themselves and even by purportedly German characters.)

Not every series has to deal with dark conspiracies, threats to the world as a whole, insurrections against the current order (be it by the antagonists or the protagonists), … Indeed, most series would be a whole lot better if they were left out!

Similarly, not every new season needs to up the stakes, invent greater threats, whatnot.

Similarly, there is no need for a series to continually reinvent it self: Most reinventions work worse than the original and even those that do work well risk alienating the original fan base. Usually*, it is better to stay with a single great concept. True, this can eventually lead to viewers growing tired of and abandoning a series, but nothing lasts forever. Good new ideas that do not fit the original format can be explored in a new series, while the original series runs its natural course at full quality.

*Doing a quick brain-storming, I actually could not name a single exception of a major and lasting change in concept/premise/setting/… that had a positive net-effect. (But I am certain that they do exist. The list of smaller changes causing an improvement, e.g. a strong new supporting character, is considerably longer.) The closest I came up with was “Chuck” and the addition of intersect-provided physical abilities. These made for both many interesting plot developments and a lot of entertaining action scenes; however, I still consider the earlier series more interesting and enjoyable. A case could possibly be made for some of the developments on the various “Stargate” series.

Excursion on “interesting situations”:
As I realized watching “Orphan Black”, one of the things that I appreciate the most in fiction is protagonists being put in (in some sense) interesting and unusual situations (mostly based on their own frame of reference). “Orphan Black” e.g. has the main protagonist among the clones see another clone die—and take over her identity with no previous information. Ensuing experiences include having to get through a hearing about a lethal shooting committed by her police-woman alter ego and trying to keep parts of her “old” life going in parallel to the “new” life. This applies in particular when learning and personal development are involved in variations of the “Bildungsroman” theme. A somewhat recent example is the movie (I have not read the book) “Divergent”: I was fascinated by the heroine’s move from the highly specialized faction she was born in into another and her efforts to cope in the new environment, including having to hold her own against people who had lived in that environment since childhood. Unfortunately, this part of the movie was not explored in the depth I would have preferred—having to leave room for conspiracy and insurgency… A similar trend is seen in “Counterpart” (mentioned as “very promising” in my recent post on “Back to the Future”): Two alter egos (or counterparts…) from different realities meet each other and eventually switch places. Early on these situations are at the core of the series; by now, still in the first season, conspiracies and whatnot dominate.

In all fairness, it could be argued that the use of an “interesting situation” also borders on the hackneyed in the genres I tend to watch/read the most. Consider e.g. how the likes of Bilbo/Frodo or Luke Skywalker are torn out of an idyllic existence for great adventures, how any amount of earth humans are transplanted to unknown worlds (most notably in the “Narnia” series), how the ignorant-of-magic Harry Potter finds himself in Hogwarts with minimal preparations, or, looking at some of my posts on fiction, e.g. the early events of “iZombie”, “Grimm”, and “Orphan Black”. However, this is a point where I am willing to give a lot of leeway—not only because I enjoy the situations, but also because they have a narrative advantage of being able to explain a new world to the viewer/reader without jumping through hoops: Explain the world to the protagonist and the audience receives the same information.* To boot, many of these situations are radically different from another, while e.g. fictional conspiracies have a great degree of fungibility.

*There are examples of doing it otherwise that work well. An extreme case is the “Malazan Book of the Fallen”.

Excursion on (dis)similarity of alter egos: A common problem in fiction is that alter egos are far further apart from each other than they realistically should be. This has narrative advantages; however, it is also potential danger in that it misleads the broad masses on topics like personality development, perpetuating the outdated “tabula rasa” models and their highly negative political influence. “Counterpart” does a reasonable job in that the differences between the main protagonist and his alter ego are small enough to be explained by different events and developments in their lives. “Orphan Black”, on the other hand, shows so extreme differences that the clones basically have no more in common than a group of randomly selected individuals—something considerably less realistic than human cloning.


Written by michaeleriksson

March 29, 2018 at 12:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] have now gone through the rest of “Orphan Black” (cf. a recent post)—the overall quality* was high enough to offset the unfortunate story developments. However, […]

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