“Orphan Black” has been hailed as a feminist masterpiece for its meditation on female archetypes and subversion of typical TV scripts to turn male characters into plot devices. But creators Graeme Mason and John Fawcett didn’t understand that element of the show until the real-life Cosima enlightened them.
During the “Orphan Black” panel at the ATX Television Festival in Austin, Texas, last Sunday Mason spoke about how his old friend Cosima Herter — the inspiration for Cosima Niehaus, a historian of science and a consultant on the show — changed his perception of the series.
“[She] is the real Cosima,” he explained.
“But not actually a clone… that I know of,” Kristian Bruun chimed in with Donnie-brand goofiness.
Mason went to Herter as soon as he and Fawcett got the green light to move into development of “Orphan Black.”
“She’s very Cosima,” Mason said. “She got all hand-wave-y, and, like, ‘Oh my god! That’s so cool.’ And, ‘Don’t you realize you’re playing with a feminist bomb?!'”
During an interview with The Huffington Post at the Roaring Fork restaurant June 6, Mason said he didn’t initially think of “Orphan Black” as anything resembling the prime-time feminist juggernaut it’s since become.
“John and I didn’t set out to do a show that managed to encompass a massive spectrum of feminist themes,” he said. “We didn’t set out to do that. But the women close to use were going, ‘Guys, you know what you got here? Do you know what you’re doing?’ So, very early on in the process we made that a part of our understanding.”
The themes “Orphan Black” has now mastered owe a great debt to those early dialogues. “We discussed all issues about identity, of course, themes of ownership, ownership of your body and individuation,” Mason said, “things that the show really mines now without being too heavy-handed.”
The sad reality is that just having a woman lead a show in so many complex roles is enough to turn the typical prestige TV model on its head. Finally, men are the one-dimensional obstacles that move the story forward.
“‘Orphan Black’s straight men are among the stupidest and least riveting fictional creatures to populate the modern television landscape,” Jessica Roake wrote for Slate during Season 2. “After years of suffering through completely unrecognizable female characters on TV, it’s hard not to celebrate the show’s almost gleeful denigration of its straight male characters.”
Roake argued that this construction of “completely flat” characters was intentional. Mason disagreed.
“We try and create deep characters throughout,” he said. “It’s simply flipping the usual paradigm back-to-front. Usually, the female characters are shitty, because they’re there to support the [male] lead. So now you’re seeing the male characters are in supporting roles. So it’s a function of that… in the structure and the storytelling that they come off like female characters might come off in another show.”