Teaching Orphan Black

Curator's Note

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.

Thanks, Staci - and sorry it took me SO long to reply (hopefully you see this much-delayed post!). Space constraints obviously prevented me from delving into the scope of the course except in the most cursory way. But to answer your first question, regarding how I approached the show vs. others, what worked in my favor was that the class takes place for 50 minutes three days a week. This meant that at least one day a week we could address key concepts & issues in a broad sense, another we could delve into the other screenings, and then one day, address Orphan Black (in relation to the prior issues). While in practice it was not this systematic (I see how class conversation & interest level is and adjust accordingly), this is roughly how it worked out. I should note that we don't begin screening Orphan Black until about a month into the semester, as the first part of the class deals with broader issues pertaining to history, critical concepts in TV Studies, industry, production, etc. Our entree into OB is with paratexts - I first ask them about their knowledge of the show sight unseen, then screen promos, and then finally, the next day, screen the first episode. This process helps create a layered conversation. One of the most useful ways to discuss OB is in terms of narrative, obviously - and for that, we have to wait for several episodes to accrue. Then we can systematically do a break down at the episodic, arc and season level. In terms of genre, I try to screen other examples of shows with similar generic traits (at least in part) - e.g., NYPD Blue and Brooklyn Nine-Nine for the police procedural, The Sopranos as quality TV/family melodrama/gangster hybrid, etc. In both the times I have taught OB, we actually did not weigh too heavily on just that show. Indeed, because it is provided along with other screenings (and readings - none of which are about the show) it fits into a larger contextual conversation. The virtue of focusing on one show over a longer period of time, though, is that they can think through how so many different critical approaches can connect to one text and lead to such varied readings. I wouldn't want to JUST focus on Orphan Black - I probably could in lieu of the other screenings - but as one consistent text screened in tandem with many others, it has been a worthwhile experience. If you haven't done so, be sure to check out my links for the syllabi & sample assignments. Hope this answers *most* of your questions!

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.

Yeah- Homeland would work really well for that! When I taught Homeland, I taught the first two episodes of the first season in order to discuss Othering in the media. The second episode ends with Brody praying in the garage. It was quite interesting to see how many of them took this as a definitive sign of his "evilness." It would be interesting to screen the series throughout the semester and have them note moments when reversals happen and note how Othering works hand in hand with the moral legibility of the series and how Homeland's very premise rests on a continual renegotation and then assertion of moral legibility.

Hi Jason - sorry it took me so long to respond...slipped my mind at the end of the semester. But better late than never! I saw that you used Homeland and seriously considered using it as well. The reason I decided to go with Orphan Black ultimately was because I wanted to use an ad supported show, as well as one that has had a lower cultural profile (and airs on a "lesser known" network/brand) and with transmedia extensions. I've found that (at least so far) few students come in having seen or knowing much about Orphan Black, and that can be productive in terms of discussions regarding quality, paratexts, etc. Also, the show's genre hybridity and dedicated fan community lead to productive conversations, as does its status as an international co-production as well as its treatment of gender and sexuality. We've also had an interesting conversation about whether or not it represents quality TV (never a consensus here). Totally agree about the value of screening a long-form series in terms of cultivating a sense of community as a class. Both times I have taught OB, students express incredible excitement and have even made bets about who can hold out and not view any more episodes on their own. The very few who have seen the show prior to the class have typically been superfans who then act as ambassadors of sorts for others (and their enthusiasm is also useful in terms of talking about reception and fandom).

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?

Liza - I will echo my apology provided above regarding my delay in responding. One of the questions I always pose to students at the end of the semester is "if not this show, that what other show?" Both times I taught the course, students couldn't come up with a better one. When I first thought about using a season or so of a show throughout the semester, it was between this and Orange is the New Black. I think OITNB would have dealt with many of the same issues, and indeed, would have opened up other conversations regarding new platforms and new ideas about television (perhaps). But ultimately I wanted to turn to a show that aired first on linear TV and one with a lower profile (and less extensive critical acclaim). I'm glad I ended up doing OB instead, as the vast majority had Netflix and had already watched OITNB. I don't know how much longer I can/will keep using Orphan Black - I will see how much awareness the class has of the show now that it has been around longer and judge accordingly. I don't think showing one or two episodes of OB would be worthwhile, as much of the value of the show comes from its serialized form, its deployment of different generic traits in different episodes, the different characters played by Tatiana over time, etc. And a key value (to me) of showing a block of episodes of any show comes from how you discuss it in terms of narrative structure (in connection to representation, genre, etc.). Otherwise, it's fine to just stick to single episodes of different series, which I did in the past pre-OB. At any rate, I can't really think of another show that would be good as a replacement...yet. Jane the Virgin is an enticing newer prospect, and I wouldn't mind teaching Justified. What's so challenging about choosing a specific show for a course is that ultimately (for me) the course should not be "about" the show - the show is just a mechanism for facilitating many other conversations. BUT the show still has to be compelling enough to a diverse group of students to hold their attention/excitement for several weeks. It's also important that the show isn't so exceptional that students start to think about the class as being the "Breaking Bad class" or "The Lost class" (for example) - such a perspective would potentially lead to conversations being focused more on the specifics/distinctiveness of that show rather than broader issues/concepts.

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.

Carl, thanks for commenting! See my comments about OITNB above (I almost used that instead!). I actually screened Transparent for the last week of class and it went over very well -that is a tempting one to show. My hesitancy for using it as the "feature" text for the whole semester is because it is so distinctive (in terms of mode of distribution, representations, business model, etc.). That issue of selecting between more "representative" televisual texts and distinctive or exceptional ones is a key conundrum for those designing a course featuring a large number of episodes for an individual series. The decision of how to proceed, of course, largely depends on your pedagogical objectives - so maybe if I taught a class focused on TV & New Technologies, OITNB or Transparent would be perfect...hmmmm....

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.

Zoe, I understand your hesitancy certainly. I would *like* to think that my approach to OB strikes a middle ground. Since we only watch the first season, we still are dealing with something quite incomplete, partial, ongoing. But by having at least one whole season, we can engage with contemporary television on multiple levels - not only in terms of episodes, arcs, and seasons, but also with regard to how representations, for example, might shift as a show continues its run. Also, as I note in other comments above, I don't just screen OB during the semester; along with it, I screen a variety of other types of shows (including reality TV, news, sketch comedy, sitcoms, web series, etc.). It's also worth noting that I don't - nor did my students - perceive OB as quality TV. At least, most didn't. Rather, we talked at length about whether it fits dominant cultural discourses about quality TV or not - a productive activity in itself.

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