Narrative captivity: Losing Orphan Black for want of a half-fan

18706-orphan-black-s2-dvd-new_mediumI am a long standing fan of Orphan Black but this season they lost me.  I tuned in for the opening episode of the new season, and it wasn’t long before my eyes had crossed.

In the new season, it feels as if Orphan Black is being made to labor under the weight of its own complexities.  And with all the clones in motion, these complexities are formidable. And with two seasons in place, there are many additional plot points and precedents to honor.

Tedium, thy name is consistency.

Showrunners Graeme Manson, Ivan Schneeberg and David Fortier must of course honor the story.  Fans, especially, are ferocious in their defense of its integrity.  But the rest of us really are not engaged in narrative book-keeping in any kind.  We love the actress, her clones, and the broad story lines that give her an opportunity to dazzle us with her virtuosity, lend some urgency to the story at hand, identify the goodies and the baddies, and that’s enough for us.

We want some sense of narrative development.  We want our heroine to mature or at least change (or at least clone) as pluckily she survives.  But give us the big picture, not what feel like pages of gawky exposition in which good actors are brought low by the need to belabor plot points.  These moments almost feel like writers and directors clarifying story complexities for their own sake, and when this happens we know that undue complexity has hijacked the show. Narrative captivity, it’s a terrible thing.

We see why this happens.  After a couple of seasons, the people who make the show have mastered the finest plot points better than the best Yeshiva student.  And fans!  Fans live and breathe the show and they often appoint themselves the guardians of the story line.  (“You want me on the wall. You need me on that wall.”)  And in a sense this is like any corporate culture, where the incumbents fall into a gravitational field and eventually can’t believe that everyone doesn’t live there too.

There are a couple of ways of fixing this.  One is to have an ethnographic panel of half-fans.  These are people who love the show but live in distant orbit around it. They know the characters and the major plot points, but they don’t know or care about the very fine details. Writers, directors and show runners can call them up from time to time and say, “So tell me about the show” and they can use this as a chance to recalibrate. It’s a question of optics.  We can hold up the half-fan’s view of the story and change the way we see the show. Or think of it as a time machine.  We can use the half fans knowledge of the show to recover the way we understood it in the first season.

Naturally, half fans, some of them anyhow, will evolve into full fans.  And it will be up to the person running the panel to replace them with more half fans.  In fact we should think of the panel as a bend in the river, a place where half fans slow for long enough for us to quiz them…before they run downstream to full fan status.

I don’t know who want to take this on.  And it would be presumptuous to suggest a name.  So I will.  Dee Dee Gordon could do this brilliantly.  What we need, Dee Dee, is a panel of half fans. As someone starts a new show, they will ask you to empanel this panel, and from time to time they will use it to see their shows (as many, most) others do.  In effect, the half fan panel (now, HFP, because that sounds way more official) is a rope that the showrunner wears around his/her waist while descending into the narrative mine shaft.  A couple of sharp tugs and they can return to the surface.

 

Two New Rules for TV story-telling (aka things to learn from Being Human)

being human

Let’s begin here:

My Netflix research this fall tells me that the rules for making popular culture and TV are changing.

The cause?  That popular culture is getting better and this means some of the old rules are now ineffectual and in some cases actually counter-productive.

Being Human is a great case study.

This is a study in fantasy and the supernatural.  A ghost, a vampire and a werewolf find themselves living together and look to one another for guidance and relief.

It is a show is riddled with implausibilities.  Characters skip around in time and space.  They morph from one creature to another. The plot lines can get really very complicated.

And the viewer doesn’t care.  (At least this viewer doesn’t.)  The acting is so good that we believe in these characters and we are prepared to follow them anywhere.   Even when the plot tests our credulity, we believe in the show.

The key is good acting.  Without this, Being Human is just another exercise in dubiety.  With it, the show holds as a story and more important it actually serves as an opportunity to ask big questions that attach to “being human.”

There is a second show in SyFy called Lost Girl.  .  This is billed as a supernatural crime drama.  It too is stuffed with implausibility.  Lots of fabled creatures and magical spells.  For me, it’s pretty much unwatchable.

And the difference is largely acting.  The actors on Lost Girl are not bad.  They are just not good enough to deliver the emotion truth on which narratives depend, but more to the point they are not good enough to help Lost Girl survive the weight of its own implausibility.

This condition is actually complicated by the creative decision to have the characters supply the “ancient lore” that explains spells and various supernatural beastie.  I found myself shouting at the TV,

“Oh, who the f*ck cares!  The back story is a) not interesting, b) it does not animate the front story, c) in short, the back story is your problem, not our problem.  Get on with it.  Spare us the pointless exposition.”

(Yes, it’s true.  I shout in point form.  It’s a Powerpoint problem.  I’m getting help.  It’s called Keynote.)

New Rule # 1

The more implausibility contained in a narrative, the better your actors had better be.

If this means spending more time casting, spend the time casting.  If this means paying your actors more, pay them more.  Actors are everything.  Well, after the writers.  And the show runners.  Um, and the audience.  But you see what I mean.

And this brings us to the second new rule for story telling on TV.  The old rule of TV was that actors should be ABAP (as beautiful as possible).  Given the choice between someone who is heartstoppingly attractive and someone who looks, say, like one of the actors on Being Human (as above), you must, the old rule says, choose the actor who is ABAP.  (The Being Human actors are attractive.  They just aren’t model perfect.)

This rule created a trade off.  Very beautiful actors were chosen even when they weren’t very talented as actors.  Indeed, show runners were routinely trading talent away for beauty.  As a result, a show began to look like a fashion runway.  Even good writing could be made to feel like something out of the day-time soaps.

Bad acting is of course the death of good narrative.  Wooden performances can kill great writing.  But real beauty exacts a second price.  There are moments when you are supposed to be paying attention to a plot point and you find yourself thinking, “Good lord, what a perfectly modeled chin!”

In a perfect world, every actress would be Nicole Kidman, perfectly beautiful, utterly talented.  In the old days, when TV makers had to chose they would go for beauty even when it cost them talent.  But here’s the new rule.

New Rule # 2

Do not choose beauty over talent.  Beauty used to be the glue that held your audience to your show.  Now that work is performed by talent.  It’s not that beauty doesn’t matter.  Seek attractive actors.  But beauty will never matter more than talent.  Make sure the talent is there, and then, and only then, can you cast for beauty.  Think of this as a kind of “attractive enough” principal.

Stated baldly, this rule seems indubitable.  What show-runner or casting agent would ever think otherwise?  On the other hand, I dropped in on The CW recently and everyone seemed model perfect with bad consequences for the quality of the work on the screen.

A change is taking place in our culture.  And over the longer term, it will provoke a changing of the guard, a veritable migration in the entertainment industry .  Actors who are merely talented will have a more difficult time finding work.  And, counterintuitively, actors who are blindingly attractive will have a more difficult finding work.  What used to make them effective now makes them distracting.

As popular culture becomes culture, there will be many more changes.  Watch this space.