I know it seems like I am always nerding out over one show or another, but don’t mistake my enthusiasm for an indiscriminate television palate.The BBC America’s Orphan Black really does deserve it…. and more. Although I don’t usually go for science-fiction, this show definitely proves worthy of its Saturday night hour. The premise is a little complicated: Sarah Manning witnesses a woman who looks just like her committing suicide on the subway platform and assumes her identity. She quickly realizes she, and the dead lady, are part of some complex program in which there are clones around the world in her same likeness. [stay with me] She meets others (all who look exactly like her) and they team up to unravel a scheme that possibly involves the upper echelon of the United States military and some pretty heavy duty science folks. The most amazing part of all this is that Sarah and all her clones are played by one actress: Tatiana Maslany.
Amazing because even though Masalany plays all of the known clones, each character exists in her own universe. Each one has their own body language, their own accents, their own gait, and even their own nervous tics. It’s incredible to watch, and this paves the way for complete viewer buy-in. This season sees an even greater level of genius as Maslany ups the ante on the complexity of her performance, playing clones impersonating other clones. It is genius. Because the plot can get a little tricky and difficult to manage, Sarah’s prickly likeability, and edgy sweetness makes us stick around to sort through the opaque science. The other characters don’t shrink in the shadows either. Each one is developed unto her own. Allison is the
uptight housewife that is the opposite of what this cliche evokes, Cosima intrigues with her intellect and elusive sexuality and Helena’s back story is interwoven with religious ideology that could sustain its own show. We are introduced to Rachel, this season, as the ruthless, corporate lobbyist that seems to have (at least a little) to do with why this is happening. These are the heart of the show, and while I am most definitely smitten with the concept of illicit human cloning and accelerated human evolution (yes, that is an actual thing here), I keep watching because I want to know more about THEM.
While other science-fiction shows are dangling gimmicky special effects and hard-to-look-away-from make-up tricks in front of our noses (no offence, Defiance fans), Orphan Black is doing the hard work that other shows can’t (or won’t). Without relying on the huge explosions or fancy costumes, Orphan ratchets up the tension purely through the vehicle of the clones, their interaction with each other and their resolve to figure out the enigma of their existence. The questions surrounding this controversy are slowly unfolding, leaving the viewer to assert their own values. Factor in the crime-solving element (did I mention the dead clone was a cop?) and you have something for everyone.
Premiering its second season last night, Orphan Black really hit its stride in the season premiere. At this point, we know who is behind the cloning, The Dyad Institute, and we know a little more about the biology of the clones, generally. Each of the clone-characters offers something uniquiely exquisite to the tone of the show. Allison’s darkly comic pursuits offer a chuckle to an otherwise super-intense storyline. This season we get to see her join a musical, struggle to stay on the wagon and then fall off again in a big way. Sarah gets to be the extreme badass this season, fighting to find her family that is caught between her and the sinister forces pulling the strings behind the scenes. Cosima is sick and sleeping with the enemy, Delphine. It remains to be seen where Delphine’s loyalties lie, but so far, I am not sure if we can trust her.
This show is tautly executed, but it has a softness that you often don’t find in science fiction. The relationship between Sarah and her flamboyant foster brother is further proof (if you still need it) that this show lives and breathes through the performance of its characters. Ricocheting between acute suspense and penetrating humor, Orphan Black is less about humans than it is about humanity. It brings up questions about the human existence and addresses philosophies of nature and nurturing, all the while captivating me like a good hour-long drama ought to do. It has just the right mix of high and low; smart thinking on the part of the BBC America. What more can I ask of a show than to appeal to my higher instincts while also satisfying my lowest (human with a tail anyone)? This show has exactly what original programming needs: artful acting, a substantial storyline, and tantalizing surprises. Well played, BBC America, well played.
Catch up with the BBC’s season one recap here:
The season premiere offered a few surprises that I’ll let you experience on your own. But tweet me (@sroseholt) after you watch those last few minutes and let me know what you think this revelation means for the rest of the season. I am DYING to discuss this with y’all.
Also, check out my blog for Entertainment Weekly, The Community for weekly posts on other fun and chat-worthy shows.