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orphan black, season one

Here’s a show that’s easy to obsess over, but first you have to know it exists. It’s on BBC America, made in Canada, and I assume it gets low ratings, although they may be good enough for BBC America, since it’s been renewed for a second season. The basic setup is a cross of science fiction and mystery: Sarah Manning sees a woman who looks exactly like her commit suicide by throwing herself in front of a moving train, and spends the early part of the season trying to figure out why that other woman existed. We find out soon enough … there are only ten episodes in the season, and the show works at a breakneck pace anyway, so it doesn’t take long for Sarah (and the audience) to find out she is one of a set of clones.

There’s a plot twist happening just around every corner, yet for the most part Orphan Black maintains some connection to reality. The clones are real people, and we learn a lot about them over the course of the season. The writing is strong, and the actors are up to the challenge of delivering those lines. I’d argue that Orphan Black isn’t particularly atmospheric … there aren’t a lot of special effects beyond getting the same actress to appear twice or more in the same picture, and the look is fairly generic (it’s shot in Toronto, and with a little effort you can tell it’s Toronto, but the fact that it’s not immediately obvious demonstrates that atmosphere isn’t really the point).

If what I’ve described sounds appealing to you, then you ought to check this out when it makes its inevitable appearance on disc and streaming. In scale, it’s about on the level of something like Lost Girl, which also combines good writing and an excellent performance by Anna Silk in the lead, but Lost Girl is more into the supernatural/fantasy genre (the title character is a succubus), which doesn’t appeal much to me. (That’s not a knock on the series, which was good enough to keep my attention for a while until the disconnect between my tastes and the show’s setting became too great.)

Orphan Black, the series, gets a B+. I look forward to it each week, I don’t fall behind on episodes, and the narrative and characters are interesting. There is one thing that raises Orphan Black above its own level though. Her name is Tatiana Maslany, and no, I hadn’t heard of her, either, even though she’s been in TV since 1997 and in movies since Ginger Snaps 2 in 2004 (I’ll have to watch that one again, now that I know who she is). She’s won an acting award at Sundance … she’s been around, and she’s only 27. She gets the showy part here, playing (at least) seven different clones. There have been many multiple personality roles over the years: Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve, Sally Field in Sybil, Toni Collette in United States of Tara. And all of those actresses won awards for their work. But Maslany has a different task here. She isn’t playing one person with multiple personalities, she is playing multiple people with one personality each. And she pulls it off magnificently. Sarah is British and a con artist, Beth is Canadian and a cop, Alison a soccer mom from Canada, Cosima an American PhD student in biology, and then there’s Helena from Ukraine and Katja from Germany. Each of these characters is distinct from the others; you are never lost, you always know who you are watching (makeup and wigs help, of course, but this is largely due to Maslany’s skills).

It gets even more complicated at times. Maslany (who is Canadian) plays Sarah (who is British) pretending to be Beth (Canadian). Alison (Canadian soccer mom) pretends to be Sarah (British petty thief). Helena (Ukranian) pretends to be Sarah. In each case, you know who is behind the mask. It’s like watching Face/Off, with Maslany in both the Nic Cage and John Travolta roles. Most of the time, Maslany is portraying one character, and she inhabits each one. It’s not just the wigs or physical tics … it’s as if you’re watching seven different actresses.

Suffice to say that Tatiana Maslany is giving one of the great performances ever on television. It’s doubtful the major award winners will notice (I’m still waiting for Emmy Rossum to get an Emmy). She’s up for a Best Actress in a Drama award from the Broadcast Television Journalists Association, which is something, although given her more well-known competition (Claire Danes, Vera Farmiga, Julianna Margulies, Elisabeth Moss, and Keri Russell), she must be considered a long shot. If Orphan Black gets a B+, Tatiana Maslany gets an A.

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