One of my program items at the Worldcon was “Why Aren’t You Watching…”, a series of panels in which fans of various current TV series were invited to advocate for 15 minutes each about why you should be watching their favorite shows. I did the session on Orphan Black. Here’s what I said.
Orphan Black is the story of con artist Sarah Manning, played by Tatiana Maslany. A young woman with a troubled past, a pretty messed-up present, and not much hope for the future, she is an orphan and a single mother whose seven-year-old daughter Kira is currently being raised by her foster mother. She also has a FABulous foster brother, Felix, an artist and rent-boy who is a hoot and a half. One terrible day, when everything in Sarah’s life is going wrong, she sees something unbelievable: a woman on a railway platform who looks exactly like her. Before Sarah can approach her, the woman slips off her jacket and shoes, sets down her purse, and steps in front of an oncoming train. Stunned by this inexplicable occurrence, she picks up the dead woman’s purse and finds inside a ready-made escape route from her miserable life: she will adopt the dead woman’s identity and claim that the corpse on the tracks is her.
Sarah intends to clear out Beth’s bank account and hit the road with Kira and Felix, but it’ll take time to get that much money in cash, so she finds herself having to occupy the dead woman’s shoes, job, and life for longer than she’d planned. But playing someone else isn’t easy, especially when the dead woman, Beth Childs, is a police detective. Working with limited information, Sarah finds herself trapped in a web of lies to Beth’s partner Art Bell and boyfriend Paul, while Sarah’s abusive, drug-dealing ex-boyfriend “Vic the Dick” becomes unexpectedly morose over Sarah’s death and insists that Felix, who is in on the scam, help with a big public memorial service.
Sarah finds herself rapidly switching identities and accents (Sarah is English, Beth Canadian) as she tries to manage her relationships with Art, Paul, Felix, Vic, Kira, and her foster mother Mrs. S without anyone but Felix finding out about the scam. She particularly doesn’t want Kira to learn that her mother is supposedly dead. But the late Beth had two mobile phones: one is connected to her public life as a cop, and the other keeps buzzing with cryptic messages from some stranger who insists on meeting her. Beth also has a safe deposit box with information on several apparently unconnected women. And Beth is under investigation for having shot a civilian, in a situation that reeks of conspiracy.
Then things get really complicated, as the mysterious message-leaver slips into Beth’s car. Her name is Katja, she’s German… and she too looks exactly like Sarah. WTF?
Before long Sarah finds herself investigating — and possibly embroiled in — a conspiracy involving a biotech corporation, a scientific-slash-social movement called Neolution (led by Dr. Aldous Leekie, played by Max Headroom star Matt Frewer), a scary religious cult, and a secret military project. She meets several more young women who look like her: dreadlocked bisexual grad student Cosima, uptight soccer mom Alison, unstable Ukranian assassin Helena, corporate shark Rachel, and who knows how many more might be lurking out there.
And it’s those clones, all played by Tatiana Maslany, that really make Orphan Black worth watching. Genetically identical, all the same age, but raised in different countries under different circumstances, each of them is a distinct individual with unique speech patterns, mannerisms, and reactions. Maslany, with the help of brilliant but unobtrusive special effects, makes you completely believe in these different human beings, and the many scenes in which she portrays one clone pretending to be another are some of the finest acting I’ve ever seen on television. A scene near the end of season 2 in which most of the clones participate in a dance party is a fabulous, wordless paragon of acting and filmmaking genius. Sarah’s joyous hip-hop, Cosima’s dreamy glide, Alison’s contained shuffle, and Helena’s frenetic thrash are perfect demonstrations of the characters and the actress’s complete understanding of them from the cellular level on up. The fact that Tatiana Maslany has never even been nominated for an Emmy should be a felony.
Many of the other characters, including Leekie, Mrs. S, the fabulous Felix, and even Vic the Dick — who manages to be sympathetic and completely despicable at the same time — are also excellent, and they inhabit a variety of worlds: seedy dance clubs, frightening religious cults, university biotech laboratories, corporate office suites, and, most frightening of all, the suburbs of Toronto. The creators keep the extremely complex plot spinning along at high speed, and you have to pay close attention to keep the players straight, but they play fair with the viewer — though there are plenty of surprises, all the pieces are right there in plain sight. The music, too, is excellent — atmospheric, modern, and kicky. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent show, carefully crafted and brilliantly executed.
It’s also real science fiction, of a type rarely seen on television — one in which the science and the fiction are inseparable and both are important. This is the story of a bunch of believable human beings whose lives are deeply affected by a fictional but highly plausible technology. The science is sometimes a bit hand-wavy, but it’s good enough for this non-biologist, and the varied reactions of the characters, their organizations, and the larger society to this technological change are well-thought-out and seem realistic, though sometimes extreme.
Orphan Black is a hell of a ride. There are two seasons so far, each with a satisfying arc, and you really have to watch the episodes in order. My suggestion is to space them out, giving yourself a chance to consider the implications of each episode and anticipate future developments before watching the next, but I suspect that once you start you’ll binge until they’re all gone and you’ll be left anxiously anticipating season 3 with the rest of us.
I’ll leave you with one caveat: there were some developments at the end of season 2 that make me question whether the show can keep this performance up for another season. But the creators have done such a good job so far that I have hope that they’ll be able to continue the streak. We’ll have to see. In the world of Orphan Black, the only constant is change.