Sunday, June 11, 2017

Cyrkle – "Red Rubber Ball" (1966)

The roller-coaster ride we took is nearly at an end
I bought my ticket with my tears
That's all I'm gonna spend

Imagine you’re standing on a subway platform, thinking about nothing in particular as you wait for your train to arrive.

Suddenly you notice that someone who is standing ten yards down the platform looks exactly like you.

Before you can react, she steps off the platform directly into the path of the oncoming train and is squashed flatter than Wile Coyote after an encounter with an ACME asphalt roller.

That’s how Orphan Black –a Canadian sci-fi TV series that airs in the U.S. on BBC America – began.

It turns out that the two doppelgangers on the subway platform are actually a couple of clones left over from a failed collaboration between the military and some renegade scientists.

And those two aren’t the only clones.  New ones keep popping up.  

*     *     *     *     *

I’m not really a science fiction guy.  But I was looking for a new TV series to watch a few weeks ago, and New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum had given Orphan Black a positive review.  

My local library had its first four seasons available on DVD, so I went for it.

Nussbaum’s favorite thing about Orphan Black was its star, Tatiana Maslany:

[Maslany] delivers a performance so magnetic that it transforms the show into something with staying power, a near must-watch.  Maslany plays eight clones.  Through digital trickery, her characters play scenes with one another – bickering, bonding, and strategizing. . . . This could easily come off as a circus trick, a gimmick.  And yet it doesn’t: with her observant black eyes, wide smile, and an array of wigs, tics, and accents, Maslany makes herself invisible in a situation that practically demands hammy showmanship.  It’s a tour de force of subtlety.  She has chemistry with herself.

Five of Maslany's clones
Jill Lepore was equally ga-ga about Maslany in a New Yorker article that appeared a year after Nussbaum’s review:

“Orphan Black” stars the prodigiously talented twenty-nine-year-old Tatiana Maslany as a small population of clones. Maslany is the best thing about “Orphan Black,” with the writing a close second. . . . Really, she is breathtaking. 

Nussbaum thinks Maslany’s standout characters are Alison (a suburban-soccer-mom-turned-drug-dealer clone) and Helena (a crazy, abused-by-nuns Ukrainian assassin clone). 

But Alison is something of a caricature.  She's part Breaking Bad, part I Love Lucy.  

And Helena is about as realistic a character as Boris Badenov.  (It’s hard to say whether Helena or Boris has a less convincing accent.) 

Don’t get me wrong: Alison and Helena are as entertaining as all get-out.  But Maslany’s portrayal of them is hardly the “tour de force of subtlety” that Nussbaum thinks it is.  I don’t believe in either one of those characters.  Consequently, I don’t feel for either one of those characters.

*     *     *     *     *

From Lili Loofbourow’s lengthy piece about Maslany and Orphan Black in the New York Times Magazine:

In its subject matter, “Orphan Black” broods on the nature-nurture debate in human biology, but in its execution, the show cleverly extends the same question to matters of genre.  What does the exact same woman look like if you grow her in the petri dish of “Desperate Housewives” or on a horror-film set in Eastern Europe?  What about a police procedural?  The result is a revelation: Instead of each archetype existing as the lone female character in her respective universe, these normally isolated tropes find one another, band together and seek to liberate themselves from the evil system that created them.

By structuring the story around the clones’ differences, “Orphan Black” seems to suggest that the dull sameness enforced by existing female archetypes needs to die.  Early in the first season, there is a serial killer hunting down the clones ­– it turns out to be Helena, the Ukrainian – who ritualistically dismembers Barbie dolls after dyeing their hair to match that of her next victim.  It’s a creepy touch, but one that can also be read as a metacriticism of how women are used on TV: the punishing beauty standards to which they’re held, the imposed uniformity. . . . Our low tolerance for difference among female characters means that they will almost always be less interesting, less memorable and less beloved than their male counterparts.  In this context, Helena becomes a kind of hero, slaughtering televisual conformity and constituting, in both her savagery and her warmth, a radical expansion of what women on television can be. 

Archetypes . . . tropes . . . metacriticism?  Gee, I thought Orphan Black was just a science-fiction thriller.  I didn’t realize that when crazy-pants Helena slaughtered her enemies that she was actually plunging a knife into television conformity and expanding the scope of what a female television character could be. 

Jill Lepore agrees with Loofbourrow that most television series do very badly by their distaff characters.  She finds Maslany’s performance to be notable because she portrays a plethora of interesting females:

On television, women don’t usually play grownup human beings; they play slightly oversize children, helpless and pouty, driven by appetites they can’t possibly understand. . . .

There are very few good roles for women on television, and Maslany plays nine of them.

(If you’re paying attention, you may have noticed the discrepancy between Nussbaum’s statement above that Maslany plays eight clones, and Lepore statement that she portrays nine.  That’s because new clones keep popping up every season, and Lepore’s article was written a year after Nussbaum’s.)

Lepore then jumps a couple of more sharks in the service of gender politics, claiming that the show is “obsessed with female reproductive organs,” and stating that “the show’s go-to wound is the puncture: the act of penetration.”  (Which isn’t really true.  Some Orphan Black characters do get stabbed, but others get shot with guns or blown up with hand grenades.  And most of the stabbing is performed by females – which makes it a stretch to view it as “penetrative.”)

*     *     *     *     *

After making it to the end of the third season of Orphan Black, I’m beginning to have second thoughts about my choice of viewing material.  The show’s plot twists and turns are becoming hard to swallow with a straight face.  

Orphan Black has a “Perils of Pauline” quality – the cliffhangers follow one another in rapid succession.  No sooner does one of the clones untie herself and walk away from the railroad track just before the train comes than a different one frees herself from the sawmill conveyor belt just before she is rent asunder.

Plus you almost never know whether a character is a good guy or a bad guy.  There’s so much double-crossing and triple-crossing going on in Orphan Black that you are rarely confident that you know what’s going on.

This kind of dramatic sleight of hand is intriguing up to a point.  But I think the writers have lost track of which of the cups that the red rubber ball is hiding under.   

Be that as it may, I don’t change TV shows in midstream.  Once that I’ve gotten all the way through the first episode of a series, I will stick with it to the bitter end . . . which is my plan for Orphan Black.

*     *     *     *     *

If you watch Orphan Black, you’ll notice that the episodes have rather odd titles.

For example, the titles of the season one episodes are quotes from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  Given the subject matter of the series, that makes sense.

The third season’s episode titles are taken from President Eisenhower’s farewell address, which famously warns the nation to be wary of the “military-industrial complex.”

And the titles of the fifth and final season’s episodes are quotes from the poem “1695,” which was written about a hundred years ago by the American poet, Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

Wilcox’s best-known poem, “Solitude,” opens with these lines:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.

*     *     *     *     *

The Cyrkle were managed by Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles, which may explain why the group was chosen to be the opening act for the Fab Four’s final American tour in the summer of 1966.

The Cyrkle was formed by Don Danneman and Tom Dawes, who met while they were students at Lafayette College.  Both men later wrote advertising jingles for a living.  (Dawes wrote the “plop, plop, fizz, fizz” jingle for Alka-Seltzer, among others.)  

“Red Rubber Ball,” which was co-written by Paul Simon and Bruce Woodley (of the Seekers) made it to #2 on the Billboard “Hot 100” in July 1966.  “Paperback Writer” kept the Cyrkle out of the top spot.  

Here’s “Red Rubber Ball”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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