Orphan Black

orphan black

Season two of Orphan Black, a fun, fast-paced sci-fi show, starts on BBC Three this week, so let’s have a look at its stellar first season.

While on her way home to reunite with -and hopefully regain custody of – her daughter after almost a year away, our heroine Sarah, a rebellious punk with a criminal record and a murky past, notices a woman crying on the train platform. The woman takes off her high heels and her purse, puts them on the floor and glances at Sarah – they look identical. Without even blinking at this surprise, the woman turns away and walks right in front of an oncoming train. In the ensuing panic, Sarah does what any reasonable person would do – nick the woman’s stuff and run off.

And so begins Orphan Black, a fast-paced twisty-turny science-fiction drama anchored by a jaw-dropping performance by newcomer Tatiana Maslany, which we’ll get to in a minute.

Sarah pretends to be Beth to get Beth’s money – yeah, Sarah’s not the most likeable protagonist in the world – but quickly finds herself drawn into a complicated, crazy, and increasingly confusing series of events as she discovers who Beth was, what she did in the past, why she decided to kill herself and why she didn’t even flinch when confronted by her exact double.

Sarah also uses Beth’s suicide as a way of escaping her old life by making it seem like Sarah was the one who killed herself. Sarah does this with the help of her brother Felix, a man with the name of a cat, who isn’t too pleased with her actions but goes along with it because, hey, family.

As if that weren’t enough to deal with, Sarah also struggles to regain custody of her daughter Kira and deal with Vic, an old flame who’s involved in some dodgy dealings.

Sarah quickly realises that stealing Beth’s identity wasn’t the best idea, as she finds herself completely out of her depth, constantly caught in dire situations, always one mis-step away from everything falling apart. This is what makes Orphan Black so exciting and tense. The show delights in shoving Sarah into a tight corner and watching how she reacts. Beth’s colleagues and boyfriend notice that something’s a bit off, but can’t quite tell why. She’s convinced Vic that she’s dead, but he’s telling everyone else she knows, too, including her daughter. And as she scrambles to sort everything out, she’s contacted by another woman. Another woman that looks just like her. Except she has red hair. And she’s… German? What? What the hell is going on?

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Community 104: Seasonal Retrospectives for Beginners

QUICK SCHEDULING NOTE: I ended my last post on this blog discussing the shows I hoped to cover in the near future. Well, as you can see, a few weeks later, none of them have been covered, due to reasons too boring and plausible to mention here. Hannibal and True Detective are coming at some point, eventually, but the two House of Cards series probably aren’t. Updates will be back to the usual once-a-week-ish from now on, promise.

Now back to your irregularly-scheduled programming.

 

This is the fourth in a series of posts on this blog about the critically-acclaimed American sitcom Community. The first blog post is a general introduction to the show and its characters. The second blog post is a list of the series’ best episodes so far. The third blog post is a review of the first four episodes of the recent fifth season. This post will be a look back at the entire fifth season.

Oh, by the way, Community season five is airing in the UK on the Sony Entertainment Television channel (no, I’ve never heard of it either) Thursdays at 10pm.

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Three months ago, expectations were high. The man responsible for one of the most ambitious, creative, clever and just-bloody-hilarious sitcoms ever made had miraculously returned to his pride and joy to try to steer it out of the slump which it had found itself in after he was booted away from it for a year. But would he be successful? Would he return his show to its former glory?

In a word: Yes.

In a few more words:Yes, yes, absolutely, yes.

Before the fifth season premièred, Dan Harmon promised that the show would return to being more grounded and character-focused, in the vein of Community season one. This was welcome news after the embarrassing imitation-Community of season four and the fun, but utterly bonkers, season three, where the plots became crazier and gimmick-heavy and the characters became increasingly one-dimensional.

To some extent, he was right. Community’s fifth season arrived with a double-bill of episodes that reintroduced the characters after a time-skip and gave them all a credible reason to return to Greendale, then focused on Jeff becoming a teacher and Abed taking a film class. Plots in later episodes revolved around school textbooks, organising the next dance, a teacher working with other staff members to get a noticeboard put up, and Jeff helping his colleague Professor Duncan get a date. No gimmicks, no high-concept parody, just simple, school-focused storylines where the group bickered and bantered and dealt with life at Greendale. Very season one.

But to some other extent, that promise went out the window after episode two. This season has had some of the weirdest episodes of the entire show. Almost half of the fifth season’s episodes had some sort of high-concept element to them. The serial killer/David Fincher episode, the episode where a game of ‘The Floor is Lava’ turned the campus into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the episode where a social networking app turned the campus into a futuristic dystopia, the second Dungeons and Dragons episode, the second bottle episode, the animated ‘G.I. Joe’-style episode, etc.

Normally, this would be a cause for concern. Committing to a different theme, or ‘gimmick’, for a full episode, for several episodes in a row, has been hit-and-miss for the show in the past. Fortunately, the ones this season were almost-universally great (the exception being the serial killer episode, which I wasn’t a big fan of) and did what the best ‘gimmick’ episodes do- use a fun set-up to explore the characters and make a lot of great jokes.

The lava/post-apocalypse episode created an entire mini-civilisation, with its own made-up back-story and lore, impressively quickly, and featured a fantastic send-off for Troy. The future dystopia was quite possibly the maddest episode the show has ever made. It examined what happens when the idea of likes/retweets/upvotes/reblogs/etc is applied to real life, wrapping a parody of futuristic sci-fi movies around a witty satire of Internet culture and a conflict between Jeff and Shirley.

Particularly impressive were the sequels to two of the show’s most popular, critically-adored and highly-praised episodes, ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’ and ‘Advanced Dungeons and Dragons’. Going back to an extremely successful idea and deciding to do it again can be very risky. Everyone’s expectations are sky-high, and the episodes could have ended up seeming like pointless rehashes that should never have been attempted.

However, the show has done sequels to similarly-adored episodes in the past, and they became some of the best episodes ever. The one mis-step, the fourth (!) documentary-style episode, was from the Harmon-less fourth season. Harmon’s back in control now, so it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that ‘Calligraphy”s sequel managed to surpass the original, while the second D-and-D episode came very close to topping the first. But it was a surprise. A wonderful surprise.

Continue reading “Community 104: Seasonal Retrospectives for Beginners”