Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Things That I Love: Orphan Black

For my previous Things That I Love, read here.

I'm always the last one to know.

That's an exaggeration, but not a big one.  I usually discover awesome shows only after their awesomeness has been proclaimed to the world.  Such was the case with Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Homeland.  And such is the case with Orphan Black.

The buzz surrounding Season One and early Season Two brought me to BBC America, even though I watch maybe five shows a year, and usually never on channels not named HBO or AMC.  I knocked back 10 episodes in two days -- hooray for On Demand and marathon viewing! -- and never looked back.

Orphan Black is the type of show that could not have worked even five years ago, due to the special effects required.  It is an amazing blend of technology, writing, and acting.  If any of those parts failed, the show would fail.  Fortunately, they seem poised to succeed for quite some time.

So?  What's It About?

From here, there will be spoilers for Season One and what's aired of Season Two!  You've been warned!

Orphan Black is a Canadian-produced show set in the present or near future.  Most of the action takes place in the Toronto area, though some is also set in the northern United States.  It starts with British-born Sarah Manning, roughly 30 years old, returning to the Toronto area from a place unknown.  Sarah is a con artist, trouble maker, and a bit of a drifter.  So when a young woman commits suicide by jumping off a train platform right in front of her, Sarah doesn't miss a beat: she takes the woman's suitcase and hustles off.  The problem is?  That woman was her identical twin.

Sarah plans to clear out the woman's bank account and leave town with her foster brother, Felix, and her young daughter, Kira.  However, it turns out that the woman, Beth Childs, is a cop wanted for questioning in an incident where she shot and killed an unarmed person.  Before she can escape, Sarah must impersonate Beth and answer for her actions.  As Sarah learns more about her, she learns that Beth killed the woman for her own protection, because Beth wasn't just Sarah's twin, but a clone.

Sarah soon comes into contact with three other clones: Katja, a German who is shot to death in the pilot; Cosima Niehaus, an American getting her PhD in microbiology at the University of Minnesota; and Alison Hendrix, a suburban Toronto soccer mom with a penchant for crafts and firearms.  Then there's Helena, the Ukrainian clone out to kill them all, who may have a deeper connection with Sarah than the rest.

All were born in 1984 to different parents.  All are part of an experiment by the Dyad Institute for reasons that are still largely unknown.  Some are crazy fast healers, while others suffer from mental problems or lung conditions.  Only Sarah is capable of giving birth.

Sarah, Cosima, and Alison begin working together to learn what Beth knew and what the Dyad Institute is after... and to preserve their own safety.

Why It's Good

This could have been one of those sterile sci-fi shows filled with jargon and weird, stilted performances.  Instead Orphan Black is wonderfully accessible and human.  While much credit goes to the writing, the acting deserves first recognition.

Oh the Acting.  This show could not have worked without Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany playing the clones.  It would have been so easy for her to turn them into caricatures.  Hey look, there's the British punk rocker with the cockney accent, with her exaggerated surly toughness!  There's the cool an' frody "if it feels good, do it" California chick!  There's the ultra uptight suburban soccer mom!

Maslany could have turned them into caricatures, but she didn't.  Instead, she fully inhabits each clone, giving them subtle differences instead of ones that beat you over the head.  These differences can be seen in their posture, the way they hold things, their language, their accents.  For instance, Cosima is more relaxed than Alison, yet in a different way than Sarah.  

Sarah pretending to be Alison
Then Maslany adds another layer when the clones have to pretend to be each other.  Alison as Sarah adopts the comically exaggerated cockney accent before settling into something close to the real thing.  Sarah as Beth or Cosima seems distinctly uncomfortable, and in times of nervousness, lets some of her British accent slip.

And what's more?  Maslany's clones have chemistry with one another!  Much credit belongs to the effects department for creating such a seamless juxtaposition of the clones (more on that in a bit).  But you also have to wonder how in multiple-clone scenes, Maslany manages to react so believably to the other clones, when in reality, there was no one else in the room.

I can think of only one other actor who could do what Maslany does: Enver Gjokaj in Joss Whedon's Dollhouse.  Even skilled veterans like Tony Colette in The United States of Tara make their personalities seem more like caricatures.  Granted, Colette had the challenge of embodying a teenager, a grumpy redneck, and a 50s housewife, while Maslany's characters are all the same age and gender, but still -- only one of those personalities felt like a different person as opposed to a caricature.  Which is to say that if you think what Maslany does is easy, it isn't.

That takes nothing away from the other performances.  The other standout actors are Jordan Gavaris as Sarah's droll gay foster brother, Felix -- with a British accent that doesn't miss a beat, despite Gavaris being Canadian -- and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Siobhan Sadler, or "Mrs. S."  In the first season, she is mainly there to disapprove of Sarah, but in Season Two, her role has become much meatier.  As for Gavaris, he not only has to have chemistry with Sarah, but also with Alison, a clone who is nearly her opposite in nature.  

The Special Effects.  Special effects are probably the one area where the show could have afforded to slip up.  Since the acting and writing are convincing, viewers probably could have overlooked cheesy split screens where the clones never touch one another.  But Orphan Black wants to ensure that the deception is complete.  So not only do the acting and writing convince you of the different clone personalities, but so do the special effects.  This is no Parent Trap -- the characters are constantly in each other's space.  They hug, or hit (in Sarah's case), or lie on top of each other.  When they are not sharing space, you frequently see one in the foreground and one in the background.  As a result, you forget completely that you are watching one person perform all these roles, leading to situations like one critic wishing that the actress playing Alison looked
Sarah and Cosima
more like the actress who played Sarah.

The Writing.  As with the acting, the writing could have easily become broad and caricatured.  Let's see what kind of wacky hijinks we can come up with when clones switch identities!  Or it could have gone the other way, becoming a dull, ponderous scientific exploration.  Instead, Orphan Black not only keeps its central characters human, but it also constantly reminds viewers of the high stakes.  Each episode is packed with action and reveals, most of which just further the mystery.  At the same time, the show understands that there is some inherent humor in cloning and switched identities.  When it does tackle the "wacky" premise, like Sarah pretending to be Alison at a potluck, it somehow never feels forced.

At 12 episodes in, I wonder if the writers will be able to maintain the breakneck pace.  I wouldn't mind if one or two episodes slowed down enough to give the clones more time to interact, and ask each other basic questions that you would expect from twins who never met.  Do you feel the things I feel?  Have you ever done the things I've done?  So far, there haven't been many of those moments.  Maybe there never will be.  Or maybe the show's intent is to dole them out here and there, in between hectic chases and shocking reveals.  While at the same time asking: are clone "sisters" as connected as twin sisters, and are clones any less human than non-clones?


With its premise, acting, and writing, Orphan Black has become one of my favorite shows, joining a very small group.  I will be interested to know what they do with Rachel Duncan, the posh Brit clone who runs part of Dyad Institute.  As well as how Orphan Black will approach the other mysteries, such as Mrs. S's past, why Kira and Helena have super-fast healing powers, and how Felix is connected, if at all.  And as the number of clones increases, I wonder if Maslany will be able to give them all the same subtle distinctions that she gave the first few.

Is it Saturday night, yet?

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.  


  1. And Kira's father!! Who is Kira's father? That hasn't been hinted at in the slightest. You know they're saving up for a big juicy reveal with that one. Oooh, Saturday night cannot come soon enough! :)

    1. Her daddy's sperm is probably a mixture of the 10 most ideal men on earth. Either that, or we'll learn that Sarah experienced miraculous conception. ;)