Monday, June 8, 2015

Recommended: Orphan Black

The advertisements for and conversation around Orphan Black pretty much give away the show’s premise. And, while I approve of most anything to drum up new fans for the first season of this excellent Canadian series, I think it’s a shame. The tension - and more than a bit of the fun – of the show’s beginning partly lies with the mystery that the lead stumbles upon. Because I hate that the first thing that everyone reveals undercuts that tension, I’m writing this brief recommendation to both win you over and stay spoiler-free. Please note: there Will be SPOILERS in the comment section, so, uh, don't read those.

Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) is an adult screw-up who’s just returning to Toronto. This foster kid grew up to have no goals, no job, and an abusive boyfriend. Our lead is nothing more than a scam artist, one whose young daughter is in the care of Sarah's own foster mom, Siobhan (Maria Doyle Kennedy).

While Ms. Manning makes a call from a subway platform, she sees another woman crying... a woman who looks exactly like her. The stranger sets her purse on the ground, makes eye contact with Sarah, and steps in front of an oncoming train. Shocked and curious, Sarah makes off with the woman’s bag – so she can assume her identity, and take the woman’s money for herself.

Yet Sarah’s efforts to get financial security for herself and her daughter grow more and more complicated. It’s not just the difficulty of copying someone’s signature, clothing style, mannerisms, or accent... This simple crime becomes downright precarious once Sarah Manning realizes that she’s going to have to impersonate Detective Beth Childs.

Thievery aside, the sight of this twin also cuts to the core of what most every foster kid and adoptee must ask themselves once or twice: where do I come from? Who were my parents? Do I have any living blood relations? Learning about your unknown past sounds like a dream come true, until you realize that those answers might be horrifying, or extremely dangerous.

As you watch Orphan Black, you’ll get one of television’s great delights: the relentlessly-clever hero(ine). Sarah may not be a great human being, but she never gives up and she never gives in to panic. Her approach to life is so shoddy and risky that she gets blindsided all the time, but you’ll impressed - if not delighted - as you watch her try to push on. It’s exciting to see so much resourcefulness from an uneducated woman with a cockney street kid's attitude. She has to rely on herself, since going to the police isn't in her nature.

Jordan Gavaris is great as Sarah’s foster brother, the beautifully-profane and constantly put-upon Felix Dawkins. Felix oscillates between bitching Sarah out and enabling her behavior. Although morally-ambiguous, he’s not a hoodlum himself - he simply accepts that this is what his sister does, and he doesn’t mind helping out when she has a good plan. Felix is a fine example of why this series is so admirable – his character is kind of prissy, but he’s loyal and courageous enough to run interference for his sister when drug dealers are involved. It’s the icing on the cake that he spends the rest of the time being sarcastic, picking up boy-toys, and cursing people out.

Kevin Hanchard is largely underutilized as Det. Art Bell, Beth’s partner. He’s a good presence on the show, and while I don’t mind him not appearing all the time, I do mind that he could also be used better when he is on-screen. Art adds a great dynamic to the series because he raises the issue of Beth’s secrets, and because his presence pushes Sarah quite hard; I also love the sense of anticipation, as Manning must keep fooling him or risk going to jail and never seeing her daughter again.

Maria Doyle Kennedy and Dylan Bruce round out the cast as Siobhan Sadler and Paul Dierden, who are, respectively, Sarah’s foster mom and Beth’s live-in boyfriend. Siobhan offers a naturalistic way to delve into Sarah’s past – which is doing the audience a favor, because Ms. Manning has made a ton of mistakes, none of which she’d like to deal with or face the repercussions of or relive. Paul is hunky, quiet, sweet, and more than a little bland. He makes sense for someone like Beth, although many viewers wish that he either got more interesting storylines, or was used less often altogether. Like Art, you spend a lot of time wondering if or when he'll notice the absence of the woman he knows intimately.

Say hello to Sarah (as both herself and Beth), Paul, and Felix.

Aside from its cool, moody tone and its excellent story, Orphan Black is a fantastic stealth-feminist piece. Sarah Manning has a lot of problems and character flaws for days, but she’s so capable and tough that she’s not ever powerless. Better still, the show never makes a point of how badass Sarah is, since (duh) it’s just as normal for women to be badass as it is for men.

Moreover, as the plots unfold, you realize that the central issues of the show involve freedom, the capacity and right to live one’s own life, and whether people can truly be claimed by anyone else. It’s thought-provoking ground, and I’m so pleased that series creators Graeme Manson (co-writer of Cube!) and John Fawcett (director/co-writer of Ginger Snaps!) chose to pursue these kinds of ideas in this kind of story.

Each 45-minute episode has the feeling of a BBC production – the budget isn’t high, but it’s filmed and scored in a way that completely belies its finances. I also love the foreign sensibilities - often seen in the way some scenes conclude or start, the casting, and how moments are cut together - that are at play here. The one thing I’d warn you about is that the episodes end with a “Next Time On ORPHAN BLACK” sequence that will give away what’s to come; I’d suggest stopping the playback or skipping to the next episode as soon there’s 55 seconds left and the screen cuts to black.

Over the course of its ten episode first season, OB will knock you out with its nifty, original story, its twisty, concise plotting, and its gratifying blend of humor, mystery, and emotional intensity. The theme song is excellent, and the visual aesthetics are quite lovely. Whether you’re in one of the series’ conversational scenes or in one of its thrilling action sequences, everything looks great and sounds perfect. I’m excited by the fact that this series displays so much artistic care, whether its writing tight plots and plausible characters, designing its visuals and cinematography, or scoring the music. Orphan Black is a smart, sexy, fun program, with top-to-bottom quality, and if this were a book series, I’d buy them as presents for my friends.

Perhaps best of all: in Tatiana Maslany, we get to witness a super-star actress on the rise. She uses body language and her voice as well as (or better than) any performer that I’ve ever seen. Physicality aside – and there’s a lot of physicality, as Maslany is superb at subtle facial expressions – she always comes across as totally credible, utterly inhabiting and conveying the perspective of her roles. When you see Tatiana portraying Sarah, you believe she’s Sarah. When the actress portrays Beth, you believe she’s Beth. And when she portrays Sarah pretending to be Beth, Maslany does it exactly as Sarah would.

I really can’t stress her abilities enough. Put me in a room with Johansson, Lawrence, McAdams and Maslany, and I’d spend the whole time talking to Tatiana. She can run rings around most of their performances, and - not that it matters - she’s just as charismatic as any of them.

Seriously, does Canada have a farm where they breed gorgeous, uber-talented actresses? If so, I thought they already perfected their craft with Tricia Helfer, but it seems I was wrong...

I hope I’ve given you enough reasons to try out Orphan Black. The first ep makes an undeniable case for itself, and even if season two is a laughable mess, you’ll be thankful that you saw what came before it. I haven’t watched the second season yet – I’ve heard some grumblings about a slight dip in quality, but I expect to see it soon. And, if I catch up quickly, I may even follow along with the third season, which began airing in mid-April on BBC America. As for myself, I now want Ms. Maslany to appear in everything; it’s exciting just to observe someone who’s so good at their job.

I hate to use a photo from Entertainment Weekly, but it's a good, spoiler-free shot of the cast.


  1. Oh man, I LOVED the first season of this show. I am usually the person who checks synopses of episodes etc, but I just kept watching it episode after episode without thinking of how much is left because of what a thrill it was. Yes second season sure has a dip in quality and season 3 is finally getting really interesting but it's because the first season was just so new and confident and spunky- it's hard to recreate that same magic but I like that the creators try.
    LOVE Maslany. She can play you or me or Obama or anyone else. Like it's embarrassing that people called actors like Johnny Depp chameleons because she's the ultimate. Almost every episode I have that moment of realization that fuck, ALL of these women are played by one singular woman. Most of the characters are great. Among the clones my favs are Helena and Alison. And yes, Felix is great.

    1. I'm so glad you're a fan, too!, Nikhat! I completely agree that the first season earns enough good will to make me stay through some rough patches... I would've seen S2 by now, but I've had so much going on, I can't afford to spend the time on it just yet.

      Yes. To everything in your second paragraph: yes. Although I'm a Cosima/Alison fan, myself =)


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