Friday, May 27, 2016

Box Set Blues: Orphan Black, Season 3

I'm starting to wonder if the current vogue for strongly narrative shows is a bit of a double edged sword. For dedicated fans, and those of us on the catch-up/box set lifestyle, it's great, because you see everything in order, and it's allowed shows at the top end - your Breaking Bads, and Fargos - to create strongly constructed and gripping series. But on the other hand, you get shows without strong, clear stories to tell that can chew through narrative at an alarming rate without really going anywhere, a paradox that can be frustrating to watch and one I suspect I'll talk about more when I've finished with The Flash and Arrow this year. It's also a problem that seems to be befall the third season of Orphan Black, which recently dropped onto Netflix just before it's fourth season started to roll out too. It's a good season, but a slightly frustrating one (mild spoilers). 

As you may recall, I really loved the first two seasons of Orphan Black, with it's series of strong and diverse women all played by an outstanding (and underrecognised) Tatiana Maslany, with a great supporting cast to boot. It balances it's light and shade well, tells a compelling story and has a strong underpinning subtext about how society at large commonditising and attempts to control womens bodies and sexuality, wrapped up in a clever Sci-Fi Conspiracy Thriller. Most of these strengths continue into Season 3, along with a bold attempt to bring some new ideas to the mix. But at the same time, that need to move forward leaves parts of the show adrift, and others strangely rushed. 

So the big news for Season 3 is the existance of Project Castor, the male twin of Project Leda. The Castors know they are clones, have been raised as brothers, united against the world and taught that women are disposable, and only their "mother" - the female scientist running them - really loves them. So this is a bold and good idea; talking about men and society in the same way that the show talks about women, and having a "bad mother" archeype to balance out the "bad father" ones. The problem is that the Castor storyline doesn't really gel; the Castors themselves don't get much personality and inner life so (with the exception of Mark) it's hard to care about them too much. This isn't helped by the one you see the most of being by far the most conciously villianous. If you're talking about how masculinity can be used and abused by power structures in a pseudo military cult, you're better off watching it being done faster and more elegantly in Mad Max: Fury Road.

The other problem that emerges in this series that of pacing. There are, honestly, some really interesting twists and reveals, and things do come together in a rush at the end. However for a long time we have separate stories for Alison, Cosima and Helena, with Sarah sort of bouncing between them, which neither directly nor thematically parallel. They're all fun enough (and to be honest I would watch a whole show of "Alison and Donnie Break Bad") but it smacks of a lack of cohesion that leads to the show looping back over itself a few times unnecessarily. It's late reveals around Sarah origin, the Castor and Leda original Genomes, and ultimate deck clearing for it's fourth season, all feel like they could have been pushed back to earlier in the series and given a little more space to land properly. 

I'm concious this all sounds a little harsh, and in some ways I think it comes from high expectation after a first pair of seasons that I really liked, and it's frustrating to see a (small) step backwards. It's also a sense that some of these ideas come up so fast, and are then discarded so fast, it feels like good strong concepts are being sacrificed for an illusion of forward momentum. The conspiricy of the show is complex enough, they could unfurl slower, and let characters and situations cook a little first. But it's important to finish off by saying this is still a unique and interesting show that deserves a wider audience than it's got. I remain annoyed at the BBC's complete lack of interest in the sort of show that it is excellently placed to promote. It's intelligent, thoughtful and well worth your time, and winds up well placed to move forward into Season Four.