Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) is a young druggie walking on a railway platform in an unknown city. Further down, she sees a woman carefully set her belongings aside, only to jump in front of an oncoming train. But before doing so, the woman turns to face Sarah, revealing to her shock that their faces are identical. The dazed but resourceful Sarah grabs the woman’s belongings and makes a run for it.
Thus begins “Orphan Black,” a new show that aired on BBC America earlier this year and quickly gathered a cult and critical following. This deceptively simple but creepy premise hooks the viewer into Sarah’s adventures, which get increasingly complicated and life threatening. Creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson developed the idea for “Orphan Black” years before they finally set about making the series, a Canadian-American co-production shot in Toronto. This decadal rumination oozes out of the show, which inhabits a complex universe slowly revealing its own dense and richly realized mythology.
Sarah spontaneously assumes the other woman’s identity in hopes of making off with the contents of her bank account, which turns out to be an ill-advised move since the woman is a policewoman, Beth Childs. And Beth isn’t a normal cop, either — she’s currently being investigated for a civilian shooting. The not-exactly-law-abiding Sarah not only has to figure out how to slip into the persona of a policewoman, but to deal with Beth’s boyfriend too, all this while covering up the tracks of her own disappearance. One would be forgiven for assuming Sarah has her hands full with this, but she also spots someone else who looks just like her (and Beth).
Over the course of the first season — comprising 10 episodes — Sarah discovers she has multiple clones running around (and after each other). While the pilot is light in terms of genre elements, the show quickly dips into hardcore science fiction, as the nature of DNA sequences and genetic modifications take up prime real estate of the plot. By the time the season finale rolls around, we have seen seven clones who grew up in different countries and environments, all played by Maslany. These clones interact with each other, pretend to be one another and encounter the same supporting characters but in different capacities.
This may sound ridiculous, but while watching the show it doesn’t seem so, and credit for this goes to Maslany, the lead and player of plenty of supporting characters. Watching Maslany’s work in “Orphan Black,” I couldn’t help but be reminded of Denis Lavant in “Holy Motors,” one of the finest displays of acting of the last decade. However, even Lavant didn’t have to play off himself or subsume one of his characters inside another one of his characters.
Maslany gives a bravura performance in “Orphan Black,” the kind of role dozens of actors would kill for but with the kind of challenges that would exhaust many determined actors. She gets into the character of each clone so thoroughly it’s like watching one person reinvent themselves five times within 40 minutes. She changes everything — from her physical mannerisms to her diction — for each role. One only has to compare the style of walking of Sarah with Helena, a religious fanatic out for blood, to realize how far this metamorphosis goes.
The depths of these nuances increase manifold when Maslany is playing one clone pretending to be another clone, a scenario necessitated often by the show’s cat-and-mouse plot. The differences between Sarah and Sarah-as-Beth are minute enough to not flag off the other characters immediately, perceptible enough to remind the viewers of the narrative and believable enough to cement the greatness of Maslany’s work.
To be fair, in tandem with the collaborative nature of the medium, Maslany is complemented expertly by the behind-the-scenes work in “Orphan Black”. The costuming, makeup and hairstyling on the show is grounded enough to round out the illusion — down to, amusingly, how the different bras worn by each character can serve as windows revealing their personalities. The technical departments of “Orphan Black” also step up to the occasion and delineate the clones with their different subplots by shooting them in diverse ways. The life of the uptight soccer mom Alison is depicted in static compositions and muted colors, while scenes featuring the lunatic Helena contain jarring, off-center framing and incessant rack-shifts.
Such details bloom in instances like the sixth episode, “Variations Under Domestication.” Almost like a bottle episode, “Variations” is set primarily in Alison’s suburban apartment and features her in her usual form, her in a drunken haze, Sarah pretending to be Alison in front of houseguests, Sarah utilizing Sarah’s interrogatory skills but as Alison and so on. It is a heady concoction that makes for simply delightful viewing, anchored impeccably by Maslany’s chameleon work.
Unfortunately, Maslany was passed over for a nomination at this year’s Emmy and SAG awards. As a little-seen Canadian show that wore its genre trappings proudly on its sleeve airing on a smaller cable network, “Orphan Black” was the epitome of an underdog. Moreover, when the strengths of the show are sequences such the one depicted above — which reveal the true scale of their achievement only to a regular viewer — the uphill climb is made even harder. Regardless of the lack of awards attention, Maslany remains one of the year’s biggest breakout stars, and “Orphan Black” one of its best new shows. The first season is out on home video now, and its short length makes it ideal for a lazy weekend.
“Orphan Black” will return to BBC America in April with a new season. If the show can maintain this level of skill and fun in its second time at bat, it deserves a larger audience. And if Maslany can continue her virtuoso performance — and conventional wisdom says yes – she deserves a bigger fanbase.