What “Orphan Black” can teach networks about luring back viewers

Lavish praise has been heaped upon “Orphan Black” in recent weeks, and with good reason. In the hit-and-miss world of BBC genre programming, “Black” proved to be a cut above the rest, with enough style, wit, and intelligence to earn a devout (if small) following on Saturday nights. Most of the attention has (quite rightly) gone to star Tatiana Maslany, whose multiple performances in the show have turned what could have been a cheesy conceit into a series of fully-realized creations. With the exception of Helena, each version wasn’t an over-the-top iteration but rather individual identities that were specific, grounded, and easily identifiable. Maslany earns every rave you’ve heard. But that’s not the sole reason “Orphan Black” is such compelling television.

Maureen Ryan has already touched upon the main reasons why programs such as “Orphan Black” are touching a nerve in 2013. But there’s one added aspect that I think works in this show’s favor: its lack of preciousness about holding onto story. “Black” is a show with a lot of story to tell, and isn’t afraid about doling out large chunks on a weekly basis. Rather than hanging onto its central mysteries, it barrels right through them, revealing even more depth to the ongoing actions than previously anticipated. A lesser show would have ended the season on some twist such as Paul’s real involvement in Beth’s life. Here? “Orphan Black” drops that bomb halfway through, then lets him find out about Sarah’s identity, then pushes him through about four more shifting alliances before ending on an ambiguous but ambitious note in the finale.

tatiana_maslany_orphan_black_2.jpgAnd that’s just a single secondary character! This isn’t just good storytelling, but good ol’ fashioned good business as well. Audiences can sniff out when a show like “Revolution” or “The Event” only has six hours of story in a 22-hour can. The idea that teasing out revelations is somehow the marker of a quality drama that knows how to pace out its twists has been utterly decimated in the past half-decade. People love to point to shows like “Lost” and “Breaking Bad” as examples of shows that know how to tell a long-gestating story. But those two programs also mastered what “Black” and programs of its ilk have learned: to create a great long-form story, you have to create a series of smaller, specific arcs as its building blocks.

Why does this make good business sense? Because it creates the desire to watch each episode, and watch it as closely to initial air time as possible. In rewatching “The Riches” in order to properly host a screening of it at The Austin Television Festival, I couldn’t help but notice how discrete each episode was unto itself while also building upon audience understanding of the world at large. Every episode presented a clear obstacle for someone to overcome, and put that character (or characters) through the ringer in order to solve that problem. Doing so not only gave each episode its own beginning, middle, and end, but also forced the characters to not sit around and contemplate the bigger picture. By keeping these people constantly busy, it gave the show a constant momentum.

“Orphan Black” functions in much the same way, with a big picture eventually filling in along the periphery while the central actions focused on micro issues that often illuminated the macro ones. It’s not that Sarah, Cosima, Helena, and Alison were disinterested in discovering their origins. It’s that they had too much shit on their plate on a daily basis in order to devote all of their energy to it. The macro mystery provided impetus to problem-solve the smaller obstacles, as “Black” excelled in giving each clone a clear set of wants and desires. These smaller problems weren’t about delaying the inevitable, but rather about revealing character through action. The Sarah at the outset of the series transformed into a very different person by the end of the season, and that transformation wasn’t anything “Black” had to underline, highlight, or explicitly express. The more she knew about her “sisters,” the more engaged she became with their well-being as well as her own. In finding her connection to her genetically-identical bretheren, she found her connection to the world around her.

beimageasmx.jpgThe show didn’t pause to explain any of this because it simultaneously respects the audience’s intelligence, but also because it frankly doesn’t have any time to hit pause on this potentially globe-spanning conspiracy in order to explain this stuff outright. A 22-episode version of this program would have people explaining the plot to one another every other week during long car rides serving as exposition dumps. Here, the show casually drops narrative bomb after narrative bomb and doesn’t stop to admire the view. It simply plows through to the next one, since its momentum is such that stopping simply isn’t possible. That makes for fun binge-viewing, but also makes for excellent weekly viewing as well. If a show treats each episode as an important entity, one is more likely to not miss an episode. It’s not about missing vital information. It’s about missing a vital piece of entertainment. You can easily catch up on what you’ve missed by reading a recap. But while that might save you time, it will also deny you the pleasure of seeing Helena shaking a literal tailfeather in the middle of a genetically-enhanced rave. And who wants to miss THAT?

Maureen’s essay talks about the lack of pretention found in low-budget shows such as “Orphan Black”. I’d argue that lack of pretension translates into a deep respect for its audience, and it’s a quality that more network dramas should embrace as they watch their ratings plummet through the floor. There are simply too many shows for any one person to watch (says the man who only not caught up on “Orphan Black”), and the best way to attract eyeballs is to make watching an episode seem like a time-sensitive manner. Reality television has a strangehold over this type of viewership, with the need to watch the latest episode of “American Idol” more vital than the last episode of “Elementary”. But the scripted dramas/comedies that focus on rewarding those who don’t let episodes pile up are the ones that have the best chance to stand out in a crowded marketplace. And for those who can’t always watch close to the original air date, they will be far more likely to plow through the backlog of episodes if each one is a solid piece of entertainment in and of itself and not simply a waystation on the path towards the finale.

I had ten episodes of “Orphan Black” waiting for me. I watched one before heading to Austin, and then nine in the past 24 hours. By contrast, it took me nearly six weeks to wade through “House Of Cards,” and I still haven’t finished “Arrested Development.” In all cases, I had access to all episodes. But the simple fact that all episodes existed for my viewing pleasure didn’t mean I was any more likely to wade through them all. Neither “Cards” nor “Arrested” held my interest on an installment-by-installment basis. With “Orphan,” I greedily went to the next episode simply because I enjoyed the one I just watched. There was an implicit promise made to me by the show that each hour would be enjoyable, which made my binge-watching less about getting through a ten-hour saga and more about simply enjoying “Orphan Black” one hour at a time. That might SEEM like the same thing, but the very reason why so few shows can see the difference is why so many of them are failing miserably.

“Orphan Black” gets a very simple thing very right: each minute an audience member spends on a TV show is precious, and that minute should be as entertaining as possible whenever possible. “Orphan” didn’t always succeed at this, but it exceeded far more than 90% of the shows I’ve watched this calendar year. There’s no way for the show to continue at this pace, since it will eventually run out of ideas to explore. But that’s fine! Better a relentless three-year, thirty-episode story that burns brightly than an interminably seven-year run that sucks all of the joy, momentum, and respect that the show currently shows its viewers. It will be extremely hard to do, but other shows would do well to try and clone the narrative storytelling in “Orphan Black” and create their own version of this small television miracle.