Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

TV: Orphan Black

orphanblacklasdfWho: Tatiana Maslany, star
What: Sci-fi Thriller
WhereBBC America (season 1-3 are also on Amazon Prime)
When: Season 1 premiered March 2013; Season 4 premieres April 14, 2016
Why Watch: This is the first time this year I’m covering a show created by two white men, but John Fawcett and Graeme Manson have crafted one of the most feminist, kickass, dark-as-fuck shows I’ve seen in a long time (other than Jessica Jones), and it deserves to be celebrated. It also stars one of TV’s most incredible talents, Tatiana Maslany, as nine (and counting!) clones. The Canadian actress has garnered a myriad of awards for her mind-boggling work on the series in addition to Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.

When con artist Sarah Manning (Maslany) witnesses a doppelgänger of herself jumping in front of a train, she ignores the WTF aspect of this would-be twin and immediately assumes her identity – careless to the risky career and suspicious boyfriend that come with it. Sarah’s an orphan on the run, whose only lasting connection is with her adopted brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris, whose snappy one liners constitute the show’s little comic relief) and her young daughter Kira (a wise-beyond-her-years Skyler Weller), who she hasn’t seen in nearly a year (and who lives with her own foster mom, Mrs. S, played by Maria Doyle Kennedy). For a woman whose only interest is in obtaining the financial means with which to get her daughter back, she quickly becomes entangled in the mystery: Who is this woman, Beth, that looked just like her? Why did she jump in front of that train? Why is her boyfriend Paul (Dylan Bruce) so damn hot – I mean, vigilant of her every move?

The genius of Orphan Black is, if coming into it you have no idea what it’s about (and I didn’t), it knows exactly how to grab you and not let go. The slow unravel of its mysterious premise is expertly played out in the first season, revealing one intoxicatingly small clue at a time in an addictively effective manner – think LOST, another staggeringly addictive show with a baffling Sci-fi premise. But unlike that beloved series (RIP, still waiting for a feature film sequel/prequel/whatever), Orphan Black trades the sunny tropics for the bleak, gritty, urban land-and-soundscape of Any City, USA (the first ep announces NYC as the locale but, filmed in Toronto, it looks nothing like it), captured smartly by cinematographer Aaron Morton. It also has the insanely talented Maslany to ground the increasingly mystifying events as Sarah encounters and engages with more and more women who share her DNA sequencing. In addition to moody, punk-rock loner Sarah, the Clone Club includes warm and easygoing Coisma, the dreadlocked and bespectacled PhD student with a weakness for sexy, French female scientists; Alison, the tightly pony-tailed and even more tightly wound married suburban mom with a penchant for guns and pills; frizzy blonde and red-eyed Helena, the mercurial and volatile Ukranian cult escapee with a ravenous appetite for both food and revenge; and the chillingly distant career woman Rachel with a predilection for white designer suits and aggressive sexual dominance. Maslany crafts each with such care and detailed distinction that you actually forget a single actress is playing all the clones (the excellent camera work and editing don’t hurt either). She’s so good that she endears each of them – even homicidal Helena and icy betrayer Rachel – to the audience. We root for them all, in a way. It’s stunning work.

Orphan Black has its flaws, and similar to Lost, those become more apparent as the series continues. Ambition gets the better of the creators and writers, and the story – spiraling out of control between the religious cult, military involvement, and scientists with a god complex – isn’t complex, it’s just convoluted. Scenes are inserted just for “fun” (see: Alison and hubby hilariously twerking on a bed) and plot lines are dragged out longer and further than is necessary or interesting (those Neolutionists have got to go). But the issues raised in season one – identity, nature vs. nurture, sisterhood (the women, unusually and thankfully, are joined together rather than pitted against one another) – remain relevant throughout. In each of her clone incarnations, Maslany creates a fierce fighter for women’s rights – the right to control their bodies and reproduction. It’s a feminist feat that doesn’t read as overtly political thanks to Maslany’s skilled characterizations. Even at the end of season three, Orphan Black retains its grip on us, but not because of its premise. It’s Maslany and these wonderful women that we keep coming back, and fighting, for.


Bechdel TestPASS

  • Two named women…: Yes. Even not counting all the clones, this show features a litany of strong, smart, accomplished women.
  • Who talk to each other…Yes, oh yes.
  • About something besides a manYes. When these women talk about men, it’s usually in a I’m-gonna-take-him-down kind of way. The series isn’t shy about curtailing romances; it knows exactly when those relationships become a distraction from the issues at hand.

Racial Bechdel Test: FAIL

  • Two named people of color…: Yes, but Art (Kevin Hanchard) is the only true series regular.
  • Who talk to each other…: Yes, but only if counting Alison’s two adopted kids (real-life siblings Drew and Millie Davis).
  • About something other than a white person…: No. The kids only talk to each other in a “tag, you’re it” kind of way. This is where the show could stand for some improvement.

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