Where Everyone Knows (And Shares) Your Face: Orphan Black

Copyright © 2013 by BBC America.
Copyright © 2013 by BBC America.

Thanks to shows like Doctor Who and Sherlock, I’ve come to enjoy British television.  There’s usually good production value, some interesting plots, and a lot of good acting.  So when I heard about the premiere of a BBC America show called Orphan Black, I decided to give it a chance.

The show follows a streetwise hustler and orphan named Sarah Manning (played by Tatiana Maslany) who arrives in New York City (though it looks like Toronto) to reunite with her daughter Kira and get out of the drug business.  However, after witnessing the suicide of a woman who looks exactly like her, Sarah decides to adopt the woman’s identity in order to make some easy money.  With the help of her foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), she tries to live out Beth’s life where it left off, only to end up at the middle of a strange conspiracy involving clones of herself.  Meanwhile, her old life is trying to catch up with her in the form of her possessive ex-boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando), while Sarah struggles to keep her cover around Beth’s boyfriend (Dylan Bruce) and partner on the NYPD (Kevin Hanchard).

Tatiana Maslany as Sarah.  Copyright © 2013 by BBC America.
Tatiana Maslany as Sarah (and many, many others). Copyright © 2013 by BBC America.

Despite the science fiction premise, the show is mostly a drama centered around the acting talents of Tatiana Maslany, who has to juggle several roles as Sarah and her counterparts.  Her ability to switch back and forth between accents and personalities is a treat to watch, keeping up tension as she tries to improvise her way out of trouble, often straining her relationships with the people in Beth’s life.  Watching the show reminds me a lot of The Bourne Identity, as both feature protagonists in a search for the truth behind their pasts and have to rely on quick thinking and a few tricks with digital technology to avoid getting caught.

The supporting cast (excluding every character played by Maslany who isn’t Sarah) is also pretty strong.  Foster brother Felix provides a sympathetic ear and lots of levity during otherwise dramatic moments, while Beth’s boyfriend Paul and police partner Art usually ratchet up the drama just by being onscreen and confronting “Beth” about her many mistakes.  And then there’s Mrs. S. (Maria Doyle Kennedy), the Irish foster mother taking care of Sarah’s daughter, who tries to encourage Sarah to be a better person and not lead Kira down the brutal path she’s lived.

The only character I particularly dislike is the ex-boyfriend Vic (appropriately nicknamed “Vic the Dick”).  I feel like there’s enough tension in the show without having to bring him in to haunt Sarah’s footsteps.  Not to mention he oscillates between being melodramatically sensitive and blindly aggressive.  His characterization might be justified considering he’s into drugs like Sarah was, but I feel like he could have been written out of her backstory without damaging her character too much.

Although the plot requires Sarah to be immersed in Beth’s life as a police officer, the show never feels like a police procedural.  It’s more of a modern-day thriller with a hint of science fiction and police drama, playing up the tension between Sarah, her clones, and the people she’s conning into thinking she’s Beth.  The show borrows from other genres, but is ultimately a drama about identity and the consequences of one’s choices.

Orphan Black is available through BBC America and Space.  New episodes air on Saturday.

Bibliography: Orphan Black.  Created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett.  Produced by Ivan Schneeberg, David Fortier, Graeme Manson, and John Fawcett.  Perf. Tatiana Maslany, Jordan Gavaris, Dylan Bruce, Michael Mando, and Maria Doyle Kennedy.  Temple Street Productions (studio).  BBC America; Space (TV channel).  March 30, 2013 – present.

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