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June 28, 2013

Could Orphan Black Have Been a Game-Changer?

June 24, 2013 - The Huffington Post

If you read entertainment news, you've probably come across pieces about Orphan Black.

The actual audience numbers aren't huge (airing on Space in Canada and BBC America in the US) but those who are watching are raving about it -- including critics and Hollywood types. It's what's known as a "cult" TV series. Based on the amount of coverage Mad Men or American Horror Story or even Girls get, you probably wouldn't realize such series have ratings that would most likely see them cancelled if they were on a major network.

But sometimes the "cult" series are the real winners. Most people today probably couldn't name some of the series that were trumping Star Trek in the ratings.

Orphan Black is about clones and conspiracies. Part of the series' appeal is doubtless its gimmick. The twinning process -- wherein an actor plays opposite himself -- has been around for decades, but Orphan Black does it better than almost anything before. Even when the clones hand each other glasses you forget special effects are involved!

And a lot of that gets down to what is proving Orphan Black's super weapon in the PR wars: star Tatiana Maslany. It isn't that Maslany convincingly plays the different clones, it's that you genuinely forget that it is one actress (though, yes, credit goes to the f/x, and to the wardrobe and hair dressers, too). Maslany picked up a Critics Choice award and people are saying she should get an Emmy.

And obscure actors in cult series on cable networks don't usually get trumpeted for Emmy nominations!

Now before we get too far along, I want to say that, personally, I'm not a huge fan of Orphan Black. I don't dislike it, and I'm certainly on board with the praise Maslany is enjoying. It has a great premise, with potential for mind boggling twists and profound explorations of themes involving identity. But I'm finding it a bit obvious in where it's going and the "surprises" it's tossing at us. I'm mentioning this to make the point that one can separate the subjective from the objective. Whether or not I think Orphan Black is one of the best shows on TV, a lot of other people are starting to say things along those lines.

And part of that is American critics basically asking: "Who the hell is Tatiana Maslany?" As good as Maslany's performance is (watch her play one clone impersonating another!) to many it's the fact that she seems to have sprung out of nowhere that is part of the mystique. One commentator labels her the "best actress you never heard of".

So where am I headed with all this?

It's this:

Orphan Black is a Canadian series. Maslany is a Canadian actress. All the actors in Orphan Black (save Maria Doyle Kennedy) are Canadian; even Max Headroom himself, genre icon Matt Frewer (as a sinister geneticist). Yet as I've written before, Orphan Black (like a lot of Canadian series) deliberately tries to obscure the fact that it takes place in Canada (co-creator Graeme Manson labelled it "generica").

I -- and others -- have been grumbling for years about populist Canadian movies and TV series that pretend they aren't Canadian. (I'll stop arguing Canadian programs should be set in Canada the day American or British programs stop being set in America or the U.K.)

The argument against Canada varies:

"I can't set my story in Canada, because Canada is indistinguishable from the U.S."


"I can't set my story in Canada, because it's too foreign and would alienate U.S. viewers."

They may not agree why they can't use a Canadian setting, but they agree it can't be done because the audience isn't used to it.

Which is why reading praise about Orphan Black from American publications I feel like shaking my fist at the creators and shouting: "Damn your eyes!"

Obviously, the makers of Orphan Black were just happy to get it financed, and if that meant referring to police "lootenants" that was A-okay by them.

Except now people are buzzing about the show! But what they aren't saying too much is that it's Canadian. Sure, some people realize it's shot in Canada -- but so is Once Upon a Time. Some people are noting Tatiana Maslany is from Canada -- but so is Alex Trebek. There's a distinction between a US series shot in Canada, and a series conceived and assembled by Canadian talent.

A year back, there was this bizarre editorial by Yoni Goldstein attacking Canadian TV. I don't know what set him off (perhaps Gordon Pinsent had butted in front of him at Tim Hortons) but Goldstein insisted that actors on Canadian shows are second rate. Yet with Orphan Black American commentators are suggesting a Canadian-based actress may well be the best actress on TV!

Orphan Black could have changed the game.

Along with recent successes such as Flashpoint and Continuum (popular but not, so far as I can perceive, enjoying the same OMG! acclaim Maslany is enjoying), Orphan Black could have helped reposition Canada in the popular consciousness. Pop entertainment is imitative (hence why so many Canadian series are set in America -- they are imitating American shows) and keen for the next trend. Had Orphan Black had maple leaf flags waving in the background, chances are half the cable series next year would be set in Canada. Well, okay, not half -- but Canada might be the "cool" setting for slick thrillers. Certainly, subsequent Canadian filmmakers wouldn't have to fight as hard with executives over whether that red mail box can remain in the shot.

Instead, the next Canadian filmmaker will face the same wall of "It can't be done."

Maybe some enterprising journalist should contact the celebrity fans of Orphan Black, which number among them actor-comedian Patton Oswalt and TV producers like Damon Lindelof, and ask then if the series was set in Canada, would they no longer encourage people to watch it? Would they retract their declarations that Maslany should win an Emmy? I'm guessing they'd say: "No, of course not."

Maybe armed with all this acclaim, the second season of Orphan Black will confidently refer to Toronto by name, and maybe new clones will sport French-Canadian or Newfoundland accents.

Until then, maybe we can just imagine there's a clone of Orphan Black itself out there. One where the characters conspire over plates of poutine and consider going public by appearing on Strombo.

An Orphan Black that changed the game.

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