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?