“Just one. I’m a few. No family, too. Who am I?”
I have spent the better part of a month pushing BBC America’s Orphan Black on friends and acquaintances like a new designer drug. So far, I have intentionally pitched it with an air of mystery. “It’s the best show on television, but don’t you dare read one word about it!” I stand by that. Orphan Black is best viewed with nothing other than my assuring you of its staggering badassery.
That said, the show simply has to be seen. In lieu of hyperbole, I can provide cold, hard (subjective) facts. At the very least, let me offer four reasons you should drop any plans for Fathers’ Day or should quit your job immediately, in favor of watching Orphan Black.
The show opens with Sarah Manning returning home with stolen cocaine and a plan to regain custody of her adolescent daughter. She witnesses a woman with her identical face commit suicide, and Sarah, ever the snake, assumes her identity. The pilot suggests a twin sister life-swap like the horrendous 2011 Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle Ringer. It certainly sounds like well-trodden soap opera material on paper, so it’s fairly predictable, right?
In a tight ten-episode season, Orphan pulls back its layers with confidence and ease. As Sarah digs deeper, she finds herself at the center of a conflict between scientists and religious fanatics. The show begins tightly focused on a damaged young woman, and then it starts to widen, revealing a conspiracy and a whole host of its players.
2. Supporting cast
Oh, how I love Felix!
It’s a fool’s errand to match talent with the show’s lead actress Tatiana Maslany (we’ll get to her in a second). Indeed, the show’s major misstep is casting a mannequin – pretty, but useless – as her love interest. However, Orphan surrounds Sarah with a host of colorful characters. Felix, Sarah’s foster brother, is a fay drug dealer with a sailor’s mouth. In the average actor’s hands, Felix would be a grating stereotype, but Jordan Gavaris has such strong chemistry with Maslany and perfect comic timing. In a television show straddling the line between dire and dour, Felix’s wit, sarcasm, and casual debauchery help to liven the mood.
Sarah’s ex-boyfriend Vic (“Vic, the Dick”) crashes into the story as a consistent agent of chaos. Sarah often finds herself in delicate predicaments, and the show tosses in Vic to further the tension. It’s a credit to actor Michael Mando for managing to make a scumbag drug dealer both sympathetic and hilarious. Vic provides the show levity as well as unpredictability.
And the list goes on. We have a seductive French grad student, a stern-yet-loving foster mother, an inscrutable scientist, and many more. As the circumference of the show grows, so does the quality cast.
Within a single episode, Orphan Black can be a sci-fi drama, a police procedural, and a sitcom farce. The premise of the show – which I continue to avoid spoiling for the readers’ sake – allows it to become anything it wants. We have witnessed life-or-death showdowns at nightclubs and hotels that recall Alias, complete with wigs, accents, and fake-outs. We have also had the delight of extended, satirical glimpses into the households of suburbia à la Desperate Housewives. Yet, the core of the show remains one woman’s desperate attempt to make sense of her life.
What’s so remarkable about Orphan Black is how it manages to keep characters, rather than plot, the priority. This is a show that moves at a fast clip, but you never feel like a glimpse into the life of a flustered housewife is ever a waste of time. As the show expands, it darts around storylines in the same vein as Game of Thrones. Certain characters and conflicts don’t always intersect, so it’s all the more exciting when they do.
4. Tatiana Maslany
She may have just received a Critics’ Choice Award for her performance in Orphan Black, but Tatiana Maslany is far from a household name. I don’t see that lasting long, however, for Maslany is a revelation. She is a chameleon, and the show rests on her capable shoulders.
Lesser shows have collapsed under a lead actress incapable of inhabiting multiple characters (I’m looking at you, Dollhouse). This, however, is not a lesser show. Indeed, in the first season, Maslany portrays half the cast. Half the cast! She imbues each of the characters with distinct physical qualities. One character speaks with her hands. Another, more uptight character walks with perfect posture. Still another slouches and darts her eyes about the room.
Maslany was tasked with portraying six characters in the first season. The reason she has received such accolades, however, is in how each character often has to pretend to be one of the others. Maslany manages to bring these characters to life, and then she has them impersonate one another effectively, without losing their recognizable traits. It’s a tightrope act, and it has left my jaw dropped even in quieter scenes.
Orphan Black arrived with swagger, a punchy thriller with a lead performance too good to miss. Renewed for a second season, Orphan can return next year in any shape or form in light of its audacious conceit.