Why Orphan Black Is A Seminal TV Show


If you missed out on watching Season 1 of Orphan Black on BBC America, I highly recommend you watch it on BBC America On Demand, get a season pass on one of several digital platforms, or get a hold of the DVDs when they are released this week.

Melding sci-fi with paranoid conspiracies, there wasn’t much that seemed original about the show when I first heard of it. Still, I decided to give it a try. I was convinced I would get bored after an episode or two.

That didn’t happen. Instead, I found myself becoming ever more engrossed and intrigued from week to week.

Soon, I found myself beyond engrossed and cheering the existence of something truly special.

Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) is an orphan who has made some very poor choices in her life. To get away from an abusive lover, she abandoned her young daughter with her own foster mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Now returned after several months, she’s desperate to get her daughter back.

One night on a subway platform, she witnesses a woman committing suicide by jumping in front of a train. Even more jolting, she looks exactly like her. Sarah grabs the purse she left on the platform and assumes her identity.

The dead woman, Beth, was a cop. Oh, irony, since Sarah has often skated in territory beyond the law. With the intention of cleaning out Beth’s bank account to finance a new life for herself, her foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) and her daughter, Kira, Sarah slips into Beth’s life.

Right here is where the story could have immediately slipped off the rails, because the idea of someone managing to fool people she’s a cop when she isn’t one can be hard to swallow. Here, Sarah’s street-savvy and toughness come into play, as well as people believing what they are seeing, i.e. Sarah looking exactly like Beth.

Sarah not only has to fool Beth’s partner Art (Kevin Hanchard) but also her estranged boyfriend, Paul (Dylan Bruce). Complicating things further—Beth was on leave because she shot a civilian, and Sarah has to defend “herself” from the charges.

Into all these complications enters another woman identical to Sarah, who has a German accent and tries to warn her that they are both in danger. While driving together in a car, Sarah’s German version is shot and killed.

Soon two other identicals, Allison, an uptight soccer mom and Cosima, a hipster geek-girl, reveal that they are all clones. Into the mix comes yet another—the psychotic Helena, who has been convinced that all the other clones must die.

What makes Orphan Black a cut above many shows of this ilk: Maslany’s remarkable performance as multiple characters and the characters themselves, who are all so individual and complex they really DO seem like they are being played by different actresses.

Most of all, it’s such a rare thing to find a TV show with truly complex female characters, never mind a complex LEAD female character. All these elements together are what make it a seminal show, in my opinion.

Each one of the clones could have easily slipped into cliché, and yet they don’t, both because of sharp writing and Maslany’s masterful acting. Each character is flawed. Each has her good points (surprisingly, even psycho Helena, or at least she might have them if she wasn’t insane). Their struggle with the elusiveness of their identities is often poignant.

And on top of that, the show is also just plain FUN. It has a subtle humor—for instance, watching Allison’s suburban paradise implode is by turns both hilarious and terrifying. As you would expect for the genre, there are many twists and turns, the biggest saved for the final two episodes of the season. It’s often difficult to ascertain who are the allies and who are the enemies. As the first season progresses, the conspiracy gradually grows wider. By the end of Season 1, Sarah evolves from a self-involved semi-criminal to a credible, yet still flawed, heroine.

I’m hooked. Give the show a try, and you may become hooked, too.

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