Orphan Black had its premier last March on BBC America, which is somewhat misleading as it is a Canadian production but takes place in America. But don’t let that particular nugget confuse you. While this sci-fi-(ish) thriller has plenty of twists, turns, and mysteries to fill any three seasons of a lesser show and moves along with the speed of a raging stampede, Orphan Black remains one of the most easily accessible and best new shows of the year.
Not the season; the year. Do seasons even exist anymore? We’re constantly being bombarded with new broadcast material all year long. Gone are the days of waiting until Fall for Three’s Company to pick up again… So much variety in one tiny apartment, and of course the inimitable hottiepantsness of Joyce DeWitt… Le sigh…
To describe Orphan Black might give away too much of its secrets, so I’ll try my best to avoid spoiler territory. Out of the gate, the show reminds me of Alias when it was good (first two seasons) or Dollhouse if it was ever good at all (it had its moments). But I’ll describe the set-up: Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) is a streetwise British urchin who is on the run after stealing drugs from her coke-dealing boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando), trying to set up a score that will secure her financially so she can start a new life with her daughter Kira, who is currently in the same foster system Sarah was raised in herself. While disembarking from her train, she is shocked to see an exact duplicate of herself poised on the platform, who almost immediately ends her own life by leaping in front of an oncoming train. A bit shocked from witnessing the event, Sarah nonetheless grabs her duplicate’s purse (finding out she was someone named Beth Childs) and decides to take on Beth’s identity, both to hide from her abusive ex and to score whatever money she can from Beth’s bank accounts.
Except of course, things never quite work out that easily for anyone. Beth had $70,000 squirreled away, which would make Sarah’s escape seem like a done deal. Except that Beth left behind a lot of unfinished business and many people looking for her, including brooding Detective Art Bell (Kevin Hanchard) and Beth’s long-suffering boyfriend Paul (Dylan Bruce). Meanwhile Vic is hot on Sarah’s trail, needing his merchandise back and gunning for revenge. Sarah’s only confidante is her foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), taking on the role of “gay best friend” in a way that could almost be considered the stuff of cliche, if he weren’t so damn great in the part.
So Sarah’s spinning a ton of plates here: she has to avoid Vic, but she needs to successfully navigate Beth’s life to get Beth’s money, dodging Beth’s associates along the way. Not an easy task by any stretch… especially when more duplicates of herself start showing up.
And that’s all I’m going to say about the storyline. The rest is up for you to discover, and believe you me, it’s well worth discovering. Orphan Black is one of the most riveting and enjoyable television thrillers I’ve seen in years. And none of it would work without the unbelievable performance by Tatiana Maslany. She tears into her portrayal of Sarah like a wild animal. She’s smart, clever, deceitful, slightly unhinged, uninhibited, vulnerable, and resourceful all at once. When she needs to take on Beth’s identity, you instantly buy it because it’s not perfect. It’s just good enough to stay one step ahead. Watching her improvise on the spot works as well as it does because it’s the last act of a dangerously clever yet entirely desperate woman.
But she’s not just acting as Beth… Maslany takes on the roles of other versions of herself. Often she’s playing an entirely new character with an entirely different accent. Even more, she will often portray one character pretending to be another character. This sort of recursive theatricality often collapses upon itself, but Maslany adroitly handles it with nuance and believability. No excess hyperbole here: this is a bravura performance, the type of which makes you wonder how come more people aren’t taking notice.
Orphan Black is a show riddled with secrets, conspiracies, shadowy characters, questionable motives, and loads of mysteries that unravel over its ten episodes. Unlike crapcan network shows that keep ladling on mysteries that take forever to uncover (if they do at all), this show rewards its viewers with eventual revelations. You won’t be led on just to be told that you might find answers somewhere down the line. The creators of the show have chosen the smart route; to answer the big questions they have set up, hold on to a few secrets, but allow whatever revelations to set up deeper mysteries that grow organically out of the plot. There’s no doubt that you’ll be more than satisfied with the show, just as much as you’ll be screaming to find out what happens next.
The show raises plenty of questions about the nature of identity, the definition of family, the ownership of one’s own body (you could make the argument that the series is one giant allegory for the debate over abortion), science going too far (a staple of science fiction since Mary Shelley), nurture over nature, etc. I find that what one takes from a show like this is usually contaminated by what you bring into it. If you want to leave all metaphors behind, Orphan Black is a tremendously entertaining program. There is a little suspension of disbelief that is required to swallow a bit of the proceedings. If I had to nitpick somewhat, it’s that sometimes events or concurrences get a bit too tidily resolved for the plot to continue unveiling itself. Nothing too major or distracting, but if you want to split hairs, there it is.
Orphan Black was yet another binge-watching experiment in the Hokey-Household, and great gobs o’ gumption, were we hooked. I truly believe BBC America has produced the best new show of the year thus far (at least as of this writing), and this is the same year that produced House Of Cards, Orange Is The New Black, and … well you know what, those are the only other new shows that I’d put into the same level of quality. Orphan Black flew entirely under my radar until several friends insisted that I drop everything and check it out. To say I’m so glad that I did would be akin to a plant who professed thankfulness for being reminded to photosynthesize. This one is a absolute must-watch. Go watch it. Here’s the video (watch that too):