Orphan Black and the Performance Text of Attractions

Curator's Note


Quality Television depends on quality acting. Period.

Though new titles in TV Studies scholarship - such as Elana Levine and Michael Z. Newman's "Legitimating Television" - do a formidable job of evaluating the industry, politics, and discourse surrounding contemporary "quality" television, there is still scant reference to acting within the medium, not to mention within the field of media studies.

One of the major reasons for the omission of acting is that there is rarely documentation that quantifies what an actor does. This situation is exacerbated by the ethereal nature of acting, a craft which remains one of the often ignored aspects of film and television scholarship.

The BBC America series Orphan Black offers a suitable remedy to this situation. Not only does it feature lead actress Tatiana Maslany performing in a "Quality TV" role, but it measures and displays the actress's full range by having her portray more than seven different clones of herself - each of whom possesses a distinctive personality, accent and mannerisms.

The success of the show is entirely dependent on what might be termed Maslany's "performance text" as a variation of Tom Gunning's "cinema of attractions." Indeed, what makes the show exciting to audiences is the question of how Maslany will portray the next clone. Following James Naremore's theories on acting in film we might also read Maslany's performances as "texts" themselves, ripe for scholarly analysis.

Applying these theories to Orphan Black may also account for the spectator's pleasures when they are surprised by the show's main "attraction" - the revelation of another clone and the actress's skill at portraying an entirely different character. These surprises exceed levels of mere writing or direction, as they are entirely dependent on whether Maslany is capable of successfully embodying another variation - a performance text attraction which is central to the show's success.

Orphan Black, then, can not only be used as a starting point for conversations about television acting, but by analyzing Maslany's performance in her various roles, scholars can quantify TV performance by using the differences and subtleties to assess the actress's skill, range and use of her craft, while providing a useful metaphor for how TV acting functions more generally in other shows.


Because I'm a horrible person, I engaged Colin on Twitter about this piece instead of here on IMR. I've attempted to rectify this mistake by collecting the tweets in Storify and share a link to that conversation here. I know it's still annoying to have to go someplace here to see the conversation, but at least it's part of the post's discourse now.

Here's the link to the storify: https://storify.com/noelrk/tv-acting-labor-etc

Sorry again!

Hi Noel, Very happy start to this conversation. Thanks for your response! The main points (in our twitter dialogue) seem to be a) why don't we recognize acting as its own separate element when considering TV? b) what other methods might we use to consider acting within the field of TV (your example of Julianna Marguiles in The Good Wife is a great example of studying the evolution of a performance) and c) is it necessary to shift the conversation to include actors' efforts in television? I think we agreed that the ideas of authorship (whether directorial or through TV showrunners) muddies the waters, especially in the critical and academic circles. On the other hand, entertainment journalism (such as it is) does a decent job of assigning credit to actors for their labor. I wonder if there is a way to bridge the gap, and if so, what texts or performances can help us to do so.

I really like this piece, Colin. I'm struck by the possibilities that television's long form storytelling afford for considering the subtleties of screen performance. In what other medium can a performer work for years (and dozens of screen hours) to evolve a character through ever-changing scenes, dialogue, etc.? In her exaggerated form of labor (i.e. playing many, many roles in the same show), I think Maslany also provides a really interesting opportunity for thinking about the identity politics of prestige television. The dimensionality of her labor (articulated through so many different characters) and the skills foregrounded by the show's focus on her chameleon-like acting (in which she disappears into one of many characters) reminds me of how relatively rare this is for prestige television, a body of texts that have largely provided forums for the display of white male performative labor. Do you get a sense of how context affects the performance text? I'm curious as to how the discourse surrounding Maslany and the show work to corroborate/complicate the value/meaning of her acting.

Justin, thanks so much for the feedback. I guess we have a few clues as to how a long-form performance text would work and how rare an opportunity it is for an actor. For me, the clue is that around the 3rd season or so, lead actors become executive producers of a show. Now, we can only speculate as to how much input the actors have into how their characters develop, but if its someone like Sarah Jessica Parker, Julianna Marguiles, Bryan Cranston or Timothy Olyphant, looking a little bit deeper will reveal that actors increasingly call the shots as to how entire series' will evolve, or, at times, when they will end. I also wonder, aside from 'Quality TV' what performances we might have missed. For me, the portrayal of someone like Dr. John Carter (Noah Wyle) or Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney) on E.R. are two of the standouts in that series, but I'm sure that there are hundreds of long-form performances that we are missing out on. All the accounts I have heard from performers in a quality role testify to the enormous creative fulfillment that playing a character as they evolve can bring, and again, often this is never repeated. As for Maslany, I guess what I find most compelling about this example is that each of the characters are defined by their differences - nationalities, accents, social classes, sometimes all of these things - which allows us to measure that ethereal thing that we try to talk about when we talk about acting. Maslany is, in this sense, providing us with a yardstick to show how acting works in TV, showing us her broad range (one of those words we like to apply to "good" actors) in a single role. This context (Maslany as performer) has been essential to the selling of the series as has been the context of her role as a breakout star and an underdog. But this is also the story that tends to be undersold in the critical and academic spheres despite the fact that range, skill and fit for a part are an integral part of audience reception and industry practice. This reminds me of a quote from Torbin Grodal, who expresses that critics and academics are drawn to directors (and for TV writers/showrunners) while audiences are drawn to actors.

The notion of range seems like an important one, because long-running shows tend to lock actors into one characterization, and subsequent roles are often inflected by audience familiarity with the previous one, whether it's similar or different. If the actor shows a new side, like Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad following Malcolm in the Middle, we have a comparative range to reference in offering appreciation. But if, say, Matthew Perry keeps playing roles that strike us as very Chandler Bing-like, we're presumably less inclined to appreciate his acting skills, which get subsumed under a notion of "TV personality" more than acting. That also seems tied to quality appreciation; Keri Russell in The Americans comes to mind.

Chris - the question of range and long-term characterization is a good one, especially as actors (as workers) are often not necessarily in control of the roles that they will ultimately play, regardless of their range. I think this also raises the question of a major element of TV as unchallenging acting or recycling old performances (as in the case of Matthew Perry as Chandler BIng or Tony Danza as a character named Tony). I think it also brings us back to Humphrey Bogart's declaration about Best Actors where the only way to tell who truly is the best is to have all the nominees compete as Hamlet. Samuel L. Jackson came up with a similar solution several years back, with his invention of the Acting Decathalon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQ1UWwE01VE. For me, Maslany's role kind of serves the same function, by having her play *all* the kinds of parts in the same text, we can see her as she is put through all of the paces and display her obvious range.

This is a great conversation and one that I wish were more wide-spread in film/media studies. But it also raises some of the difficulties that come with trying to find ways to discuss, analyze, and theorize acting. In terms of longevity, it's great when an actor can inhabit a role over a long narrative stretch and so inform, shade, add subtlety to the characterization - as such contributing to the work's authorship. On the flip side, though, I wonder how often longevity leads to an actor's boredom with a role, to the dreaded "phoning it in." Or what happens when an actor disagrees with other members of production as to the character's "direction" - sometimes this can be very fruitful (Sarah Michelle Gellar reportedly did not like the direction her character took in Buffy S6, but turns in some of her best performances of the entire series), but sometimes it can lead to a noticeable drop off in performance. But how are such things measured or analyzed objectively? I guess this is one of the issues your piece is raising, Colin, but some of the responses here also point to its difficulty. Discussing an actor's labor, or her authorial contribution to such elements as script, costume design, etc, are valuable practices. But they still seem to avoid actually talking about acting directly. I think Gellar's performance in S6 of Buffy is outstanding, but how do I quantify that beyond saying, well, she plays depression really well? Or, it's so realistic? Especially when audiences' appreciation of different acting styles changes over time and even from one medium or genre to the next?

Aaron, thanks again for your response to this. I guess I wonder if we just ought to be taking steps (and I see this conversation as one) towards coming up with different methods, approaches and questions regarding TV acting. I think you're dead-on with your statements about longevity and the difficulty analyzing the reluctant actor. This is one of the reasons that I think Naremore's ideas about film acting (reading a performance as a text) may serve as a useful starting point. In other words, maybe all that's needed at this point is a concerted effort towards digging for details (which could consist of actor's interviews or oral histories) as well as multiple methods of addressing acting in TV. Maybe incorporating audience reception is part of that? What do audiences think of performances, or how do we translate this human element into scholarship...?

I agree wholeheartedly that taking such steps is important, as I certainly believe that performance is a key part of authorship. And I think you're right that Orphan Black is a great starting point. I remember watching it and realizing about half-way through the series that I was actually relating to the different characters as if they were played by different actresses. I think it was during an episode that featured no Alison and I caught myself thinking, maybe she was off that week! It also works because of the way Maslany plays the characters playing each other. When Alison or Helena were "playing" Sarah, for example, and it hadn't been revealed yet - you could tell by the character's walk or gesture. So you have Maslany playing a character pretending to be another character (who's also played by Maslany), and you can notice her different choices when doing so. Fascinating. However, if we're going to read a particular performance as a text (and I agree it's a very good idea, at least as one approach), then there might be some other complications that arise. For example (and related to audience reception), where does the "text" of the character end and the "text" of the actor begin (or vice versa). I don't think that's a question that can really be escaped anyway - and it comes up even amongst casual viewers who say things like, "I just couldn't stop seeing Tom Cruise." In the case of OB, I really wonder how my experience of watching S2 is going to differ from watching S1 because I now have certain expectations of Maslany as a performer; and I think she must be aware of those expectations as well (I mean, not mine personally!), as all the publicity around the show focuses on the "wow" of her acting. Does that affect her performance and does it affect my reception of her performance, and so, does it affect my perception of the show as a whole? In a sense it's so much easier to look at a film and recognize, for example, good or bad lighting or uninspired framing or murky sound design. Does that make sense? I guess it's like, with De Niro, the dawning realization over the past fifteen years that our expectations as audiences were no longer being met (at least not so frequently) by his performances. Does this create a judgment of the film (De Niro's not so good in X film, so the film itself must be bad) - could that be read as a negative kind of authorship? (Sorry if this is a bit all over the place . . . riffing a bit on some ideas I've been kicking around for a long time.)

Great piece, Colin. Orphan Black's been in my queue for a while. Thanks for a good excuse to bump it to the top of the list. It strikes me that there's more work to be done here on this particular topic. At the very least: a comparative look at Orphan Black and Whedon's Dollhouse, which also features a recurring character taking on a different role or identity each week. Quantum Leap too, maybe? One of the fascinating dimensions here is to consider the tensions or differences between performance traditions across media. This particular show - and others like it - seem tailor-made to consider the confluences of performance styles and modalities that only seem possible in serialized media. If "versatility" is the hallmark of "quality" film acting, and "consistency" is a virtue in repertory theatre, then TV (as well as webseries) acting represents an opportunity for the performer to showcase both virtues. Moreover, a show like Orphan Black becomes interesting for its potential to consider both of these different performance expectations, but also how TV can merge and blend the two - i.e. versatility AS consistency. The unique dilemma of serialized narrative is also addressed: audiences tolerate conceptual changes and character transformation only within limits (or one risks jumping the shark in a bad way), but equally we grow tired of repetition and stasis. Maslany's consistency in versatility would seem to address this paradox quite neatly.

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