It’s been suggested we’re living in a Golden Age of television. There just may be too many shows of significant quality on the air right now for viewers to tune into. When something as grotesquely beautiful as NBC’s Hannibal fails to find an audience, then that should tell you something about how easy it is for really good stuff to slip through the cracks, and not in the cult way that Twin Peaks did.
So, seeing a sci-fi show with a relatively small budget reach the success that BBC America’s Orphan Black has is a testament not only to its popularity, but also to the quality of the product itself.
Orphan Black is, primarily, square in the realm of science fiction. That said, the nature of the show means that is also somehow contains elements of other genres. There’s a good measure of suburban family comedy, medical procedural, and cop drama all tossed into the mix, along with a good mystery of what’s going on and why. The show’s actually been good at parceling out clues, giving a little information leading to something that, while still uncovered, does lead the viewer to the conclusion that all this is going somewhere.
I usually describe the first five minutes or so of the pilot episode to give the uninitiated an idea of what they’re missing. Here goes:
Returning from a period on the lam to avoid problems with a drug-dealer ex-boyfriend, young con artist Sarah Manning is getting off a train in the middle of the night. The city appears to be Toronto (I don’t believe it’s ever referred to by name). Sarah is British and looking to get back with her daughter, currently being cared for by Sarah’s foster mother Mrs. S. Stepping off the train, she tries calling her foster brother Felix while behind her another young woman is studying the train schedule, her back to Sarah. The second woman proceeds to take off her shoes and a trenchcoat, and puts down her purse. As Sarah is walking towards her, the other woman turns.
She and Sarah have the exact same face.
Then the second woman jumps in the path of a train and kills herself.
Sarah, con artist that she is, grabs the woman’s coat, shoes, and handbag and decides to assume her life for the time being.
So…why were the two women identical?
It turns out that Sarah has a lot of copies of herself running around. While some don’t last more than a scene or an episode at most, dying under mysterious circumstances in many cases, the main bunch includes:
- Sarah, spoken of above
- Beth, the woman who killed herself. She’s Canadian and a cop.
- Allison, another Canadian, a suburban housewife
- Cosima, an American, a biochemist grad student
- Helena, a Ukrainian, one messed up girl
- Rachel, another Brit, a high-powered businesswoman decidedly not on the same side as the others
And that’s not counting a transgendered one from America and some poor German girl who pops up every so briefly in the pilot.
What’s going on and why?
It’s hard to really discuss why they’re all the same without giving away a SPOILER since it doesn’t come up right away. Except that this little detail is a minor thing in the grand mystery. The biggest questions come around to why they exist and who wants them alive and who wants them dead.
I’m actually rather sorry my wife and I cut our cable, because I couldn’t see Season Three when it came out. It’ll hit Amazon Prime at some point like the previous two seasons, but for now I have to wait.
There are basically two big draws for the series.
The first is the writing. The show manages to often successfully juggle multiple characters, storyarcs, and interactions on a regular basis. Beyond the women mentioned above are a number of other supporting characters, and I have yet to see Orphan Black go down some rabbit hole of stupid subplots to keep characters on the show. No one really cared about LeGuerta and Baptista’s romance and marriage on Dexter, since it had little if anything to do with the main plot of any season. Orphan Black‘s subplots often do tie back to the central mystery of the series in one form or another, so that’s a bonus in many ways. Plus, very different characters are often forced to interact in organic ways making for a more interesting show.
The other great draw is lead actress Tatiana Maslany. How this woman has not gotten more work in the acting field is beyond me. She manages to often portray very different people, sometimes in the same scene, and can tell the audience exactly which one she is strictly through body language and accent. This gets even more impressive when you consider that a frequent plot will have one of the women dress up and try to pass herself off as another one. Heck, that’s how the show starts with Sarah opting to co-opt Beth’s life. The degree of success varies wildly, but it’s always fun.
Truth be told, “fun” is a good way to describe the show in general. It’s fun. The mystery is unfolding, and I haven’t gotten the impression that it won’t be answered the way The X-Files, for example, kept putting it off because there really wasn’t one. I can’t wait for Season Three to drop.