Fri
May 17 2013 9:30am

5 Reasons to Watch Orphan Black

If you like your mysteries with a generous heaping of intrigue, action and great acting, plus a side of sci-fi, BBC America’s Orphan Black is a tasty dish, indeed. The fantastic drama begins when scrappy streetwise orphan Sarah Manning happens to witness the suicide of a woman who looks identical to herself and decides to step into her life to make a little cash. But she soon discovers that the dead woman wasn’t just a long-lost twin…but one of a series of clones.  And someone is trying to kill them.

The series just aired its seventh (of ten) episodes last Saturday, and each installment just keeps getting better and better. In case you missed Christopher Morgan’s introductory post, here’s a handful of reasons to catch up with the show and tune in:

1.      Two words: Tatiana. Maslany.  This little-known actress who previously played small roles in Canadian shows like Heartland and Being Erica is a real find. Generally when one actress plays multiple parts on a TV show, she’s a lead whose “other” personalities are recurring (like Nina Dobrev’s segues as Katherine on The Vampire Diaries) or she’s a smaller part of a big ensemble (like Tricia Helfer playing the Number Six models on Battlestar Galactica). But this Saskatchewan native has so far played six different clones, all with wildly different personalities, who make up most of the show’s screen time. (The video below explains how difficult it is shooting the multi-clone scenes.)

British Sarah is our lead, and she’s impersonating (dead) Canadian police detective Beth. There’s also American scientist Cosima and Canadian soccer mom Alison, sickly German Katja, Ukranian religious psycho Helena… and we’ve learned there are more clones (French! Italian! They could populate a whole UN!) out there. To make things more difficult for Maslany, in recent episodes the clones have been impersonating each other (i.e. Alison steps in as Sarah, Helena masquerades as Beth, etc.). And to her enormous credit, every time a new clone is introduced, she’s more compelling than the last—Maslany plays every single one of them to distinct perfection.

2.      Tight character-driven focus. Non-procedural, truly character-driven mystery series are rare on television, and this serial drama could’ve easily gone another way, bogging us down with Sarah-as-Detective-Beth ineptly investigating various crimes of the week with her partner Art. But co-creators  Graeme Manson (Flashpoint) and John Fawcett (Spartacus) wisely keep the story narrowly focused on the cloning drama. Even the cases Beth investigates are related somehow and lead to more of the identity drama unfolding. But it’s not all mystery and intrigue, either. The heart of the story is Sarah’s personal life and development. In the midst of all this chaos, Sarah is growing and adapting as a person, becoming less selfish and wanting to do the right thing. She starts out trying to scam money to get herself, her daughter Kira, and her only friend/support system, her former foster brother Felix, to a safer, better life and away from her drug dealer boyfriend Vic. By Episode 5, Sarah’s passionately telling Vic that she wants to do the right thing, and acting compassionately toward her clone sisters.

3.      Risky business. Every episode seemingly ends with a gasp-inducing cliffhanger as more and more complications come Sarah’s way. The writers aren’t afraid to take risks and throw their characters into danger again and again, with new quandaries popping up each episode:  What really happened with the wrongful shooting Beth was involved in before she killed herself? Is Sarah’s foster mother a villain or a helpmate? What is the significance of the fish symbol that keeps popping up in different places? Why does Sarah seem to be the only clone who can procreate? Also, characters that seemed like throwaways at the beginning of the series, like Beth’s live-in lover Paul, who went to stay with a friend in Episode 2, have returned to figure into the major mystery. It would’ve been easy, lazy writing to let Sarah off the hook in the romance department. (She’s already faking being a cop, does she really have to fake orgasms too?) While Paul’s early lack of…uh…observational skills regarding his girlfriend (let’s just say Sarah wasn’t ALL that reluctant about faking it) pushed disbelief suspension barriers a bit, he’s rebounded as an important and interesting figure in this drama.

4.      Sure, it’s sci-fi, but it’s not SCI-FI. Part of the appeal of the show is how grounded in reality it’s been.  If you’re a traditional mystery fan who doesn’t care for any woo-woo funny business, the cloning and science fiction-y elements have been minimal and gradually introduced. By Episode 4, we’re too hooked on why Helena is so unbalanced and what she’ll do next to worry (too much) about those strange scars on her back. And it’s not until halfway through the season that we get one of those freaky was-it-a-memory-or-a-dream-or-OH-CRAP-IT-REALLY-HAPPENED scenarios.

5.      It’s just damn good TV. There’s intrigue! There’s action! There’s romance! There’s family drama! Basically, the show has something for everyone. All in all, Orphan Black is suspenseful like whoa, boasts some great acting, and has a fair bit of heart. What more could you ask for?

Photos © Steve Wilkie for BBC America


Tara Gelsomino is a reader, writer, pop culture junkie, and Internet addict. You can tweet her at @taragel.

Read all Tara Gelsomino’s posts for Criminal Element.

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16 comments
1. ndgogrl21
Her partner's name is Art... as long as we are getting technical. Lol
Leslie Gilbert Elman
2. Leslie Gilbert Elman
I decided not to watch this, but you've made me reconsider that decision. Maria Doyle Kennedy (aka Vera Bates from Downton Abbey aka Natalie from The Commitments) is another selling point for me. :)
Laura K. Curtis
3. LauraKCurtis
@ndgogrl21

Oops! Good catch! Fixed...thanks!
4. Tempest
Nice article. One small thing: Helena explains in episode that she is Ukranian.
James Gysin
5. jimgysin
Let me add my props for this show. I wanted to give it a shot and I wanted to like it, but the cynic in me thought that it would be another three-and-done. (I give a show three episodes to hook me.) Well, I'm still watching and loving every minute of it. In fact, it's become one of my favorites. Good stuff.
Clare Toohey
6. clare2e
@Tempest--tweaked that, too. Thanks for the (cloned) heads-up : )
Tara Gelsomino
7. Taragel
@ndgogrl21 @Tempest Ooh thank you! I just blanked out on Art's name apparently and I don't think they'd explained where she was from yet when I wrote this a few eps ago so I took a guess! Corrected!

@jimgysin This show keeps surprising me too! You think you know where it might be going, but then they make surprising decisions and things switch on a dime. So compelling.
Tara Gelsomino
8. Taragel
@Leslie I don't think I've seen Maria in anything else, but she's quite good and she keeps reminding me of Amy Aquino (Felicity, Being Human, a million other roles) for some reason. I could easily see Amy A. playing that part instead.
9. Tempest
You're welcome. I had also guessed that Helena was Russian, then u decided that she may not be. I am watching TM on The Nerdist now.
Tara Gelsomino
10. Taragel
@Tempest TM is so impressive. I hadn't seen her in anything before this but she's knocking it out of the park!
11. Tempest
When OB started, I knew that I had seen TM, but I couldn't place her. I looked her up and realized that I had seen her on Alphas. I am glad that she is getting more exposure. I just realized that Sarah's foster mom was a nanny on Dexter.
Albert Tucher
12. Al Tucher
I love this show. I just worry about Ms. Maslany. Not even thirty, and when will she ever have this much fun again?
Tara Gelsomino
13. Taragel
@Al Tucher It's gonna be a hard role to top for sure, but it must be so exhausting too. I read that she only had one day off the entire S1 shoot!
Maureen Wynn
14. red-cat
I like the show, but it's been driving me crazy lately with the "identical fingerprints" thing. Identical twins (who are genetically identical after developing from a single egg) do NOT have identical fingerprints, and neither would clones. Clone stories almost always get that wrong. :-(
Tara Gelsomino
15. Taragel
@red-cat I wonder if that's something they'll revisit/aren't done talking about though? Because it seemed like the show was calling attention to the fact that Cosima said they wouldn't have identical fingerprints and wouldn't get busted that way. I don't know how they'd reason it though!
Leslie Gilbert Elman
16. Leslie Gilbert Elman
I am finally watching this show (thank you, TV On Demand) and glommed five episodes in a row last night. I only stopped because it was 1 a.m. and I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer.

Tatiana Maslany is AMAZING. There were times that I had to remind myself, that it's just one person playing all of those roles.
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