Tuesday, January 14, 2014

"Orphan Black," Year One

I want to get into some spoilers for the first season of this show, but since this is my first post about "Orphan Black," I'll write up a spoiler-free review first. The spoiler section will be clearly marked below.

It's been a while since I've really been hooked on a good genre show, and "Orphan Black" pushes all my buttons. It's a very tightly written, plot-intensive mystery serial where as soon as it looks like there's a status quo, events barrel forward that throw everything into uncertainty again. The characters are very, very strong, particularly the main character, Sarah Manning, played by Tatiana Maslany.

The early episodes follow Sarah, a young con-artist and thief, who sees a woman who looks exactly like her commit suicide one night. Sarah seizes the opportunity and the woman's purse, and slips into her identity to empty her bank accounts. She then gets herself thoroughly entangled in the life of Beth Childs, who it turns out is a troubled police detective in the middle of a messy internal affairs investigation. Sarah has to fool both Beth's boyfriend Paul (Dylan Bruce) and her police partner Art (Kevin Hanchard), but she's hoping to scam enough money to start a new life for herself and her seven year-old daughter Kira (Skyler Wexler), currently under the care of Sarah's former foster mother, Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Sarah's only real ally is her gay foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), who is doing his best to keep Sarah's scumbag drug dealer ex-boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando) from stumbling across the scheme.

"Orphan Black" is a science-fiction show, but one that keeps the genre elements fairly light until well into the show's second half. This is not a very high-budget production, so it's not very flashy and relies heavily on character and story to deliver the thrills, and deliver it does. The writing is smart, the plotting is well-balanced, and it's a joy to watch Sarah finagle her way out of one bad situation after another, relying mainly on her wits. She's a great character, smart and sympathetic, but also very much a crook at the outset, prone to making selfish and shortsighted decisions. I'd have been happy if "Orphan Black" was just a con artist show, but as we learn more about Sarah and Beth, there's this whole, rich series mythology that gets introduced, a little at a time. At the end of the first season, there's still a lot more to uncover.

Tatiana Maslany is the backbone of "Orphan Black," and here's where I get into spoilers, because it's impossible to talk about her contributions to the show without getting into its secrets. So I urge you stop reading now if you haven't finished the first season yet.


I was initially worried that there were only two credited actresses in the main titles, but of course Maslany ends up playing seven different characters, and three of them can be counted as major protagonists by the last episode. It is absolutely astonishing the way that she differentiates the clones. It would have been so easy to rely on the different accents, or to pigeonhole Allison as the soccer mom or Cosima as the nerd, but these are fully fleshed out personalities who change and grow and have big, big arcs. It's especially apparent in the scenes where the clones are passing themselves off as each other - Allison trying to be Sarah, or Helena trying to be Beth. I often forgot that Maslany was playing multiple parts in many of these scenes.

The big conspiracy elements are fairly typical science-fiction stuff. Evil corporations and religious cults are familiar antagonists. So while I was glad to see the clones' origins being explored, it helps immeasurably that the show has set up all these other conflicts that are playing out at the same time. We have Art and the police investigation, Mrs. S. and Kira's part of the puzzle, and the subplots being developed for Cosima and Allison. The rate that revelations and information sharing happens is fanastic, so it always feels like thing are in motion. I'm sorry we lost Helena so soon, because she was one of my favorites, but then it would have been too easy for her to outstay her welcome.

There were a couple of things that didn't work as well as they could have. Vic was fun at first, but they're seriously going to have to rework him if he's still going to be a regular next year. Paul was initially my least favorite part of the show, but he got a good boost around the midpoint when he brought out the mercenary training. His future success really depends on how they use him though, because I'm not really sold on him as a love interest yet. The lack of romance has been one of the strengths of "Orphan Black." Far more successful were characters like Felix and Cosima's new girlfriend who grew on me as time went on.

Looking forward to year two, coming in April.

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