When a friend suggested that I check out Orphan Black, a Canadian show that BBC America picked up and started airing last year, I was skeptical.
I am, admittedly, not usually a fan of cerebral television. I watch TV shows that help me decompress, keeping me from becoming overwhelmed as I try to finish other tasks. Working through a complex homework assignment or getting my paces in on the elliptical seems much less tedious and much more exciting when there’s an episode of Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, or anything equally and as delightfully trashy on in the background. Yes, I’ve watched shows with a bit more substance under the glitz – a little West Wing here, a little Battlestar Galactica there – but I generally don’t want to have to concentrate too hard when I’m staring at a screen and watching fictional characters pantomime life.
My friend, however, is a TV junkie. The girl watches more TV than anyone else I know – which, I guess, is to be expected of someone hoping to write for TV one day. At her insistence and because I trusted her judgment, I decided to give Orphan Black a try.
“I don’t even like sci-fi or thrillers!” I had protested, petulant as a child being forced to eat greens at dinner. But, she wordlessly handed me a flash drive that was already loaded with the entire first season and what has come out of the second season. I had little choice but to watch.
Well, three weeks and several binge-watching all-nighters later, I’m glad I listened to her recommendation. Orphan Black is one of the best shows on TV at the moment, and if you haven’t already checked it out, you should. Seriously. Drop everything, reach for your laptop, and figure out how to download the current episodes as soon as possible – legally or illegally, it’s up to you. I’m not a TV girl, and I don’t usually endorse shows with such zest, but oh ho ho, you’re missing out if this show isn’t on your radar.
Orphan Black is excellent TV – uniquely so, some might argue – for three main reasons: the versatility of its cast (led by Tatiana Maslany, a 28-year-old Canadian actress who plays four of the show’s main characters), the diversity of its characters, and the way in which its main storyline as well as its auxiliary arcs suggest thought-provoking social commentary.
Here, I’m going to take a moment and warn you that there may be spoilers ahead. Proceed with caution.
The first few minutes of the pilot sets the tone for the entire series. Sarah Manning (Maslany) is a grifter with impeccable timing and horrible (or fortuitous, depending on how you look at it) luck. She is waiting for a train at the station when she notices a woman, who looks almost identical to her, on the other end of the platform. Before she even has time to react, she watches as her doppelgänger launches herself into the path of an oncoming train. With her signature shaky morals, Sarah grabs the woman’s purse and takes off just as police arrive on the scene. Because she looks so similar to the recently deceased, she is able to steal her identity as Beth Childs – a cop with some deep-seated emotional issues.
And the intrigue begins.
Sarah, that woman Beth, and a few others are part of a group of clones (Maslany, with a few costume tweaks here and there, plays each of the clones) that were created by some unknown scientific entity for some unknown purpose. To make matters worse, a fringe religious group – that believes cloning, genetic engineering, and other wonky-donky science matters of the sort are acts of sacrilege – is out to gather and kill them. Whoa. The show revolves around Sarah and the clones’ attempts to protect their families; escape the wrath of those trying to do them harm; and discover who created them and why they were created.
Once I started watching, I couldn’t stop until I’d finished. I didn’t think I’d be able to stomach the show when my friend initially mentioned it, but, hey, you can always teach an old dog new tricks.
Unlike much of the brain-rot on TV these days, Orphan Black makes you think.
Other shows on the airwaves like Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and even other BBC America favorites (Downton Abbey and Sherlock, anyone?) feature clever writing and exhilarating storylines that draw you in, chew you up, and spit you out – leaving your heart pounding a mile a minute. These are all great shows, but, at the end of the day (or at the end of the 42-minute time slot), they aren’t actually substantial. Lady Mary Crawley and Don Draper diehards will eviscerate me for saying this, but it’s true. Mad Men, for example, may explore themes like sexism, racism, work/life balance, and the grandeur in the 1960s, but it doesn’t offer any real insight that matters into social issues. When the series does, on occasion, address social issues – inserting an interracial relationship here, including a moment of sexual discrimination there – it does so in a cursory way. At its core, Mad Men is drama designed to attract viewers and generate sexy numbers.
I don’t mean to pick on Mad Men. Game of Thrones, as much as I love it, is the same. Its episodes can be reduced to sex scenes, sexual tension-y scenes, and epic battle scenes. What would Game of Thrones be if its characters didn’t haphazardly flash boobs and butts every few minutes? A bunch of dragons and disgruntled men with beards. Game of Thrones sure is flashy, but it doesn’t make you think in the same way Orphan Black does. The same goes for most TV shows out there.
Orphan Black, on the other hand, tackles the kind of issues that, at the end of each episode, will make you stare at your blank screen and think, “Wow, that’s interesting” or “Holy crap, that’s messed up, and I can’t believe it’s never crossed my mind before.” Most notably, the show addresses the morality behind using scientific knowledge to alter – and possibly, improve – human evolution. It questions the impact of nature versus the impact of nurture on a child’s psychosocial development. It offers a nuanced look into the ethics of cloning (particularly pertinent these days) as well as eugenics, packaging this social commentary and discussion in episodes that leave you on the edge of your seat – your heart in your throat and your armpits drenched. Some Orphan Black fans even theorize that the series is a metaphor for the corporate appropriation of feminine sexuality and individuality. Heavy-hitting stuff, dude.
What’s more, Orphan Black flawlessly passes both the Bechdel and the Mako Mori tests – a boon for all the feminists (myself included) out there. The series features not one, but four strong female characters whose primary goal is to kick ass (and kick ass, they do!). Any romance is peripheral – a shocker because who knew that female characters were capable of fretting about anything other than men?! The show also features LGBT characters (including one character who is bisexual – a group that most mainstream TV fails to represent), and it demonstrates LGBT relationships in a much more nuanced, fleshed-out fashion than many other shows out there. The Orphan Black writers don’t give the LGBT couplings a few meager minutes of screen-time; they actually bother to develop these characters’ relationships.
Lastly, Tatiana Maslany is a brilliant actress, and – if for no other reason – you should take a look at Orphan Black to watch her acting chops in, well, action.
When my friend told me about the harsh backlash from the Orphan Black fandom after Maslany failed to win at Golden Globes, I thought, “Meh, super-intense sci-fi groupies.” After all, prior to this show, Maslany was practically unknown as an actress – especially outside of Canada. However, as I watched the series, I understood their outrage. Maslany plays all four of the main clones as well as a few secondary clones – juggling six or seven different roles in total. She manages to do so seamlessly, even though each of the clones has a distinct personality (and in some cases, accent). This is not an easy feat, and it speaks to her ability as an actress that she can pull it off so well. Four for you, Tatiana Maslany. You go, Tatiana Maslany – Orphan Black delivers because you deliver.