“Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany didn’t receive a nomination for lead actress in a drama series this morning when the 2013 Emmy Awards were announced. It’s a shame if not a surprise — Maslany was a dark horse candidate and a fan and critic favorite, but she’s also a newcomer whose BBC America series is a scrappy Canadian sci-fi drama that looks small compared to the ones from which actresses actually did get nominated: “Bates Motel,” “Downton Abbey,” “Homeland,” “House of Cards,” “Nashville” and “Scandal.” Maslany pulls off an incredible, if endearingly old school feat in “Orphan Black” — she plays multiple roles in what’s quickly revealed to be a contemporary story about clones.
Over the course of the 10-episode first season, which was released on DVD this week, Maslany brings to life and differentiates a host of technically identical women raised in different environments around the world — the British petty criminal, the Ukranian religious nut, the suburban soccer mom. It’s a display of acting talent that’s more about technical virtuosity than, say, the almost imperceptible flickers of complicated emotion on Robin Wright’s face when she meets up with her character’s former lover in “House of Cards,” but with it Maslany almost singlehandedly brings to life a mystery involving opposing forces of technology and faith and questions of nature versus nurture.
The Emmys have, anyway, never been terribly comfortable with genre fare, with some shows, like “Game of Thrones” and “American Horror Story,” getting the okay while others, like “The Walking Dead,” are held to only technical awards. And the pleasures of “Orphan Black,” which is the creation of “Ginger Snaps” filmmaker John Fawcett and “Cube” co-writer Graeme Manson, aren’t really the kind suited to big awards shows or too much hype — it’s just a very good time, a jaunty throwback to an older, less serious breed of sci-fi where a surfeit of imagination could overcome a lack of resources.
When Maslany plays different clones, for instance, serving as the show’s main (largely analog) effect, she dons wigs and accents, and each character fits an easy type — the punk, the zealot, the uptight housewife, the science geek. But that unambiguousness and occasional hokiness isn’t such a detriment to “Orphan Black,” which hangs its big themes out early but then is content to let its characters navigate the roller coaster plot without needing to point them out. Some of the best moments have little to do with the grander conspiracy being fleshed out — like the amusingly slow cracking of the housewife clone Alison’s facade under the weight of the wild truths about her origins she’s discovering.
That the narrative is primarily filtered through brusque, tough and reckless Sarah Manning, the main character and the one with which we enter this secret world, also helps the series immensely by curtailing its scale. Unlike the typical genre protagonist, though much more like an actual person, Sarah has no instant interest in unraveling the mystery of which she’s a part. She’s mainly concerned with protecting herself and her loved ones, with putting out the latest fire she’s set or stumbled into while trying to prove herself reliable enough to get her daughter back and to start making a life with her and flamboyant foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris).
And the relationships she develops with the other clones is winningly plausible — like a newly discovered branch of the family, they’re inherently connected to her while also being a group of strangers with backgrounds that can differ wildly from her own. When Sarah looks at her fellow clones, she’s looking, with some disbelief, at lives she could have lived and people she could have grown up into. As engaging as the hinted at clashes between the cyberpunky, untrustworthy Neolutionists and the fundamentlist Prolethians might be, it’s how Sarah, Alison and the others interact and pursue their own self-interest that’s the curious highlight of this series, which thankfully, is coming back for a second season next year.