The show is gripping from the very first episode, and doesn’t stumble or drag throughout the season.
You probably don’t know the name Tatiana Maslany yet, but within the year you will. Maslany is the star of BBC America’s Orphan Black, the most suspenseful and intelligent show to premiere in the last few years, and one that is soon to develop a cult following now that it is being released on DVD and Blu-ray. In the same way The Sopranos made famous the late James Gandolfini and Mad Men launched the career of Jon Hamm, Orphan Black is going to bring Maslany from unknown to in-demand actor.
Maslany stars as Sarah Manning, a petty criminal who wonders aimlessly through life. Sarah is an orphan whose foster brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris), is often her partner in crime—when he isn’t entertaining a parade of male guests in his fabulous loft apartment. Sarah’s only other real connection in this world is her estranged daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler), who is in the custody of Sarah and Felix’s foster mother, Mrs. S. (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Sarah hasn’t seen Kira in over 10 months and she is trying desperately to scrape together enough money to take Kira away: from Mrs. S., from their broken life, and from the guilt and shame that cover Sarah like a film she can’t wash off.
Sarah’s life goes from bad to “WTF?” when she encounters a woman at a train station who is physically identical to her. Just as Sarah is trying to wrap her mind around what she is seeing, the woman throws herself in front of an oncoming train. Shocked but still thinking clearly, Sarah grabs the woman’s purse in hopes of scavenging a few bucks. She realizes she can do one better: She decides to take the identity of the woman, Beth Childs, so as to empty her bank account.
Her plans go awry, though, when Sarah encounters another woman that looks just like her. Then another. And another. And then a few more. Sarah discovers that she and these other women are clones, although why they were created or by whom remains a mystery. Now Sarah must carry on living Beth Childs’ life (as a cop, no less!) in order to find out the truth about herself.
In a scant 10 episodes, Orphan Black succeeds in being more creatively engaging than any show on television right now. With its slight sci-fi bent of human cloning, the show is gripping from the very first episode, and doesn’t stumble or drag throughout the season. Each episode perfectly complements the last, building the story in a terrifically suspenseful arc while constantly introducing new revelations and, of course, more clones. Creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson have taken great pains to ensure the series is both emotionally and scientifically grounded, making it extremely easy to binge watch.
While the show itself is brilliantly written, it would have likely failed miserably without the tremendously talented and chameleon-like Maslany, who creates and embodies six distinct characters, each with their own personality, mannerisms, and appearance—and accents. Maslany masters not only a coarse British dialect, but Ukrainian, German, and American, as well. There are moments when you will forget that the same actress is playing several different characters, often in the same scene. When you realize that each is, in fact, Maslany, a feeling of utter amazement will hit you like a golf club to the face.
Maslany recently won the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Actress in a Drama for her work on Orphan Black (beating out favorites Claire Danes, Vera Farmiga and Julianna Marguiles), and rightfully so. No other performance in television or will astound you the way Maslany does in every single episode. She already has leagues of admirers, including celebrities such as Patton Oswalt and Damon Lindelof, and that number is likely to grow when fans start passing around their copies of Season One.
Also impressive is Gavaris, who clearly enjoys every minute of playing Felix. The “gay best friend” stereotype in movies and TV is overused, grating, and tired, and Gavaris knows it. Felix is his own character with his own motivations, which usually involve keeping Sarah from herself. Felix is the funniest and most easily relatable part of Orphan Black, and that is due to Gavaris’s wonderful work.
Sadly, the bonus features on the Blu-ray and DVD are limited. The most interesting is the “Send in the Clones” behind-the-scenes featurette, which includes interviews with creators Fawcett and Graeme as well as the cast and several of the very talented crew. Makeup artist Stephen Lynch gives us a little bit of insight about the thought that went into each of Maslany’s characters, but it is brief, which is frustrating because each clone is so uniquely designed and costumed. There is a brief tour of Felix’s apartment, which would have been an excellent opportunity for the prop and set design crew to talk about how they managed to create such a layered and believable living space, but this is not the case.
In one of the character profiles (essentially just TV promos that run on BBC America), we get a little technical talk about how the visual effects crew was able to execute believably the scenes in which Maslany is playing more than one character. Sadly, this is coming from Maslany and not the effects crew itself. It would have been fascinating to find out how it was accomplished from those who did it, but Maslany’s description will have to suffice.
Finally, there is a clip from The Nerdist, another BBC America show, in which Maslany’s talks about playing multiple characters and what the show really means to her. Host Chris Hardwicke and his two co-hosts are clearly fans of Orphan Black, but the interview doesn’t shed much more light on the show itself.
Orphan Black: your new obsession. While Season Two won’t premiere until spring 2014, we can take comfort in knowing that the story is far from over. | Matthew Newlin