My TV

28 July 2013

We Recommend: Orphan Black

By // TV

orphan-black-featureThere’s this little BBC America show about clones—Orphan Black?—you might have heard of it (and how people are ready to swear bloody vengeance because a certain actress was Emmy snubbed).

Orphan Black begins with troubled, tough, drug-dealing/doing Sarah Manning at a train station, suddenly pulled into a tangled web of half-information and deceit when she witnesses the suicide of a woman who could be her clone.

SPOILER ALERT: This series is about clones.

Without getting too far down the rabbit hole of plot and, ya know, actual spoilers (I will leave those sucker punches for you to deal with on your own), let’s talk about the good and less good (there isn’t much that’s actually bad) of Orphan Black.

The Good:

Tatiana Maslany, Tatiana Maslany, Tatiana Maslany. Holy cow! That girl can act the pants off of … I don’t know, the whole freaking world, pretty much. You think I’m joking. I’m not really. Because Orphan Black is about clones, in one season of one show Maslany portrays at least six different characters, all with different posture, vocal tics, facial tension, accents, the whole nine yards. We are talking Streep-level subtlety in at least six physically and vocally distinct yet nuanced characters. Never mind the fact that she’s mostly acting opposite HERSELF. Yeah. BOOM. And just to be clear, this isn’t one of those it’s-so-challenging-we’re-grading-on-a-curve things. Naw. Maslany went for the triple axels (that’s one of the hard ones, right? I don’t understand figure skating) and nailed them.  10/10 from all of the judges, even the German one. Gold medal to Maslany, she wins, everyone else can go home.

This is not to say that Orphan Black is a one-woman show. Clearly, Maslany does some ridiculously heavy lifting, acting-wise, but honestly, the whole cast is pretty stellar. Special gold stars go to: Jordan Gavaris, who plays Sarah Manning’s fabulously suburb-phobic foster brother and right hand man, and Maria Doyle Kennedy, who plays Manning’s strict but well-intentioned foster mother with whom things are … complicated. Anyway, the point is, Orphan Black has some very good acting happening on it.

One of the other good things is, like a lot of the more recent BBC efforts (America or otherwise), Orphan Black is very aesthetically pleasing—the designers and production team did a great job crafting a beautiful world you can’t help but keep looking at.

The last good thing (and perhaps my favorite thing) about Orphan Black is the characterization of the clones themselves. Now, this would not have worked out nearly so well with a lesser actress or a lesser design team, but a lot of the meat of the clones comes down to the writing—the dialogue, and their individual story lines. It’s wonderful to behold the way the writing team (and design team, and of course, Maslany) know and execute these amazing flawed and fully fleshed out characters. And truly, most of the main character clones are great. Allison, particularly was a favorite that snuck up on me out of nowhere.

The Not-As-Good:

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “Gosh, Borah! Are there any drawbacks at all to Orphan Black? It sounds swell!”  Well, that’s what you would have asked if you were a child actor from the 50’s. Anyway. Yes. There are some flaws in the otherwise impressively good Orphan Black.

Flaw the First: The general pacing of the show is season-driven as opposed to episode driven, so sometimes you spend an episode or two feeling like you’re going nowhere fast. This feeling can be mitigated by marathoning the show, but you’ll probably still get tingles of “are we there yet?” every once in a while.

Flaw the Second: This show is a serious drama! This isn’t so much a strict flaw as it is a little heads up. Personally, I like most things (even tragic and heart-wrenching things) to at least have moments of goofiness and play. And Orphan Black does have a few moments, but… they’re pretty few, and almost all are delivered unto us by the wonderful gift that is Felix. But the show is definitely devoted to the Drama, so depending on your priorities/preferences you may have to break it up with the TV comedy of your choice. Again, that’s more of a personal preference thing than an actual flaw.

Flaw the Third: I think most people can agree that, generally speaking, the clone intrigue premise is new for TV. Good. Unfortunately, sometimes the specific twists and turns were predictable (a few Were Not and were sucker punch-esque so I’m not telling lalalalalala). And for people really immersed in books and movies and tv and other narrative forms All The Time, it’s hard to not recognize certain narrative inevitabilities coming—that’s fine. But sometimes the show spent a bit too much time ramping up the “suspense” on things that didn’t end up being shocking at all.

Now, all that being said, I did still marathon all of Orphan Black in less than a week (what is real life?), I enjoyed nearly everything about it, and I’m excited to see where a second season takes us.

Even if you don’t think clones are your jam, give Orphan Black a try. There’s great acting, some amazingly quotable lines (ex: “You can’t hide in minimalist furniture!”), fearsome and wonderful female characters (Orphan Black beats the snot out of the Bechdel Test and then takes its lunch money), and there are clone mysteries.

What more could you want?

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