“Orphan Black,” the sci-fi series kicking off on BBC America this Saturday, March 30 at 9pm, is a thriller about clones set in present-day Toronto, one that gradually offers up glimpses of an experiment that’s become dangerous for the set of identical girls (played by Tatiana Maslany) it has yielded. But what makes it fun is the way its heroine Sarah (Maslany’s main role) comes crashing into this dark conspiracy sideways.
“Girl tries to take on new identity” is not an unpopular recent theme in TV land — there’s the current “Revenge” and its more recent derivative undercover cousin “Deception,” while CW canceled the Sarah Michelle Gellar-as-estranged-twins “Ringer” last year. But Sarah is notably impulsive, self-concerned and amoral, a former foster kid with an abandoned daughter who washes up back in the city after an apparent trip to the store that took two years. Bedraggled and punky, with a bleached streak in her hair and a few thousand dollars worth of stolen cocaine in her bag, Sarah’s not a person in which you’d place a lot of trust.
Sarah’s just arrived at the train station and is calling around, trying to see if she’s going to be able to reassemble the life she walked away from when she sees a woman weeping further down the platform. The stranger takes off her heels and leaves them by her bag, and right before she walks into the path of an oncoming train she turns to Sarah and our protagonist sees, with a jolt, that the two of them share the same face. And then, in a move that may be more interesting than that reveal, Sarah scurries over while everyone else in the area looks on in shock or attempts to help and grabs the dead woman’s purse.
“Orphan Black” is co-created by John Fawcett, who among other things directed the underappreciated 2000 “Ginger Snaps,” a film that combined werewolves, puberty and a pair of codependent outcast goth sisters into a very dark horror comedy. And he seems to have an appreciation of reckless alternagirl protagonists that fuels the portrayal of Sarah in “Orphan Black” — she’s not bad, per se, she’s just grown up in a world in which she’s always had to look out for herself first, and she doesn’t think ahead. She has the drugs, which brings certain parties in pursuit, but soon she’s in much worse trouble as she starts prying into and then appropriating the life of the woman whose identity she stole, only to find the dead girl was entangled in some serious stuff.
“Orphan Black” may not be breaking new ground in terms of its genre, but it’s lively and doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it has an asset in Maslany, a Canadian actress who’s able to play the British Sarah pretending, with minor accent slippage, to be a Canadian. She’s joined by Jordan Gavaris as Felix, Sarah’s flamboyant foster brother who seems as morally flexible as she, and Dylan Bruce, the boyfriend of the dead woman that Sarah ends up running into. Stealing a suicide’s identity may be considerably ethically problematic, but when “Orphan Black” is willing to have its heroine seduce a guy she just met on a kitchen table just to shut him up, the show promises to use that boundary crossing with a worthwhile amount of glee.