A couple of years ago, I decided to undertake a sustained analysis of one series in my Television Analysis course. Each week, we would apply a distinct critical approach toward a different episode of the same series.
The problem: which series to choose? I didn't want an “obvious” show that most students had seen. I didn’t want a show about which there was a great deal of critical and scholarly writing. I couldn’t screen a 22-episode broadcast program, especially if I still wanted to show other series throughout the semester. But I did want to screen a series that was segmented for ads, so HBO and Showtime series were out. You can see the challenge.
Enter Orphan Black.
When I taught the first season of the series back in fall 2013, only a couple of students had seen the show. Thus, before the first screening, I began with a handout asking them about their perceptions of the program. Then, in our next class session, we watched the two promos provided to the left. This approach provided a productive entrée into our discussion of paratexts, the role of TV critics, as well as the programming and scheduling practices employed by BBC America. I could immediately see students’ views toward the show start to shift. (Also enjoyable was returning to the handout at the end of the semester.)
Among the subsequent topics that a case study of the first ten-episode season enabled us to discuss included:
- The impact of business models on storytelling practices;
- Contemporary international co-productions and how they impact a show’s content;
- Narrative structure and genre (we closely analyze one episode);
- Representations of race, class, sexuality, gender;
- Industry-audience dynamics (now there is a comic book to further facilitate a discussion of transmedia);
- Discourses of quality TV (much debate was had about whether it was or was not a quality program).
At the end of each of the two semesters that I have taught the show, when I ask students whether I should use it again, the answer has been a resounding “yes.” It will be interesting to see whether such enthusiasm remains when I teach the course a third time. Will Orphan Black’s growing exposure – and availability on Amazon Prime – alter students’ perceptions and responses to the show? In what ways?
What other TV series might serve as rich semester-long case studies?
Thanks for sharing! I have always wanted to teach the entirety of a series but have yet to have the chance. When I first read your post, I thought you meant that you had spent an entire semester on -just- Orphan Black, which I thought would have been fantastic but, upon looking at your syllabus, I see that is not the case. I'm wondering, then, what the experience was of teaching this series in its entirety but only select episodes of the others (like The Good Wife, Sopranoes, etc.)?. Did you feel as if it was hard to balance the conversation? Were students overly invested in the OB? As in, were they able to talk about the other series on their own terms or was it always in relation to OB? Furthermore, and I know curriculum constraints would probably make this improbable, what might an all OB course look like? I like the idea of using a single series as an extended case study to think about many different topics and I can imagine the way that OB could also be used to talk about television stardom, performance style, generic hybridity, etc.
I've had good luck teaching single seasons of a few programs, but the most successful has been the first season of HOMELAND in my intro to TV course. It works to discuss the different venues of premium vs. basic vs. broadcast (as most of the other screenings are network shows throughout history), interfaces really well with discussions of democracy & politics, and shines on racial and gender representations. Plus the students enjoy it enough to make coming to screening an anticipated event. I think that's the best use of a long-form series - bonding the class around a shared text and serial experience.
I’ve been thinking about this
I've been thinking about this for a few days now, trying to come up with a program that fits all of your criteria (specifically your desire for a program segmented for ads) but still offers up the opportunity to facilitate the same discussions that Orphan Black has allowed you to have with your students. Needless to say, I've been struggling. I thought about FX's American Horror Story for discussions on narrative and genre, as well as race, class, gender, etc. but feel that it may be far too popular of a program. I then considered Top of the Lake (supposedly getting an additional season), which fits your desire for a shorter program and would facilitate many of the same discussions, but is (in my opinion) a very difficult program to handle and probably not one you want to "force" onto students. I then thought about some series that have ended more-or-less recently and landed on the SyFy/Space co-production Being Human ("US" Version) as an option, which I believe fits a majority of your criteria. The series was never majorly popular. It's first season is only 13 episodes, it's a rather imperfectly perfect blend of comedy and horror, and it has a semi-diverse cast (for discussions on race, class, gender, etc.). As a "remake" of the UK version the series would also be able to facilitate discussions about international co-productions and content. Even as I offer Being Human though I can't help but feel that, at least for the time being, Orphan Black really is the best program to use. I can only begin to imagine the conversations that the series has brought up in your classroom that you didn't expect (say on acting or visual effects, etc.) that another series probably wouldn't offer. As the series continues to gain popularity though, do you think you'll continue to use it for your class as the unifying whole? Or, perhaps, would you shrink it's usage down to only a single episode and use a different series for the class's season long analysis?
Teaching Television in a Time-Restricted Classroom
What a great conversation! I, too, have struggled to incorporate television into my courses, largely because the older model of 22-episode broadcast seasons proved far too ponderous. With the advent of streaming television and the new model of 10ish-episode seasons, this has become far more possible and I'm looking to inject more TV into courses that are film-heavy. Two shows that would likely work well in my classroom (I teach Queer and Trans Studies), in addition to Orphan Black are Orange is the New Black and Transparent. I am thinking of including all of Transparent in my LGBTQ Identities class as a show that models transgender identity formation.
Parts and wholes
I’m going to be a dissenting voice here and question the importance of creating a ‘coherent’ screening experience. I certainly love the idea of using a single series as an extended case study, but I don’t necessarily think this requires showing a whole season, or finding what Liza-Anne calls the ‘unifying whole’. Television, and particularly serial television, has always been more about parts than wholes. Even now, when we’re shifting to distribution formats that favour and encourage consumption of whole seasons over short periods of time, a lot of television is still encountered in a piecemeal way. I’m not criticising your approach, Alisa - I have no doubt that it created a very rewarding experience for the students. But I still have lingering doubts about the causal links between the quality television paradigm and our teaching styles. I can’t help but feel that there’s still value in teaching students how to approach a television text as a television text - something that’s always in the process of unfolding, is always unfinished, and can’t be consumed or conceptualised in the same ways as the cinema. Do you think that students are so used to binge-watching that they expect to encounter the same format in classrooms? Where do we draw the line between sensitivity to the history of both the medium and the scholarship, and the need to maintain relevance to students’ contemporary experience? I don’t think there are any easy answers yet, and it’s something we’re all going to have to figure out as we go along.
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