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Orphan Black and the Performance Text of Attractions

by Ethan Tussey

by R. Colin Tait for IN MEDIA RES


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.

Orphan Black and TV Acting

A clip from the BBC's Orphan Black

from ORPHAN BLACK Insider: Three Clones, One Frame - BBC AMERICA (2013)
Creator: BBC
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey