There aren’t a ton of shows that’s success depends on the acting quality of one person. True, The Office wouldn’t have been as cringe-worthy without the sad desperation of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, and Tony Soprano wouldn’t have such an effective anti-hero without the pathos of James Gandolfini, but both of those shows were anchored by dozens of other interesting characters played by talented actors. Several storylines in both shows do not involve their main characters, and are often some of the more effective.
This is not possible with Orphan Black because Tatiana Maslany is the show. Sure, the rest of the cast is good (great in the case of Jordan Gavaris), but ultimately, they’re all satellites to Maslany, waiting around to interact with one of her several characters. Maslany’s characters are clones, something the show doesn’t officially tell you until the end of the second episode, but something everyone can probably guess given the nature of these types of shows. Having one actor play multiple characters could go terribly wrong, as it did with Eliza Dushku in Dollhouse. That was another high concept sci-fi show that depended on the acting skills of one person that ultimately failed because Dushku couldn’t make us care. Ringer, a show that was supposed to herald the return of sci-fi favorite Sarah Michelle Geller, crashed and burned because her twin characters couldn’t maintain the interest of audience turned off by a convoluted plot.
It’s an understatement to say that Maslany succeeds where those other two actresses failed. Over the course of the first season, she plays seven different clones. True, two of them died in the first episode, and one just appeared in the finale, but that still leaves four characters, all of whom were complete, three-dimensional personalities. After a few episodes, I stopped noticing that Maslany was behind each one of these characters, because she had successfully inhabited each one in an entirely different way. When I see Alison, I see a capable, high-strung suburban housewife, and when I see Kasima, I see an intelligent, but emotionally fragile physics student. When they interact, I believe in the relationships each of the clones has with the other. One of the most amazing things about this show is that Maslany has, over the course of ten episodes, developed chemistry with herself in multiple different pairings. Not only that, but Maslany is able to play one of her clones pretending to be another clone really well. If the Emmy’s are able to pull their heads out of their asses this year and recognize a small genre show on BBC, Maslany should be a shoe in for Best Actress.
Sarah is the show’s protagonist and titular Orphan Black. She is new to the clone game, having discovered the truth about her past after witnessing a girl who looks just like her jump in front of a train in the first scene of the show. Down on her luck, she steals the woman’s purse with the intention of maybe cashing in on their similar appearances, but, as is the case with television thrillers, things do not go as planned and she finds herself falling down a rabbit hole.
Orphan Black might have four or five story lines going on at any one time, but the show never feels disjointed. Again, this has a lot to do with Maslany acting as a through line, but it also demonstrates how well the show’s been paced. Toward the end of the season, with the story being pulled around in different directions by so many people with so many different motives, I never felt confused. Heroes, another show with similar interests in genetics and human engineering, never accomplished this because it operated on such an epic scale. From episode one, the fate of the world rested in the hands of a dozen different characters who I couldn’t care about. Orphan gets it right by minimizing the scale (at least for now) and telling human stories first. A pair of moms just wants to protect their children. A woman struggles to trust another woman she might love, while risking her sisters’ well-being. A religious zealot tries to reconcile her sheltered upbringing with newly discovered truths. And yes, a group of clones try to discover the truth about their existence while defending themselves from assassins, fundamentalists, and corporate tyrants.
One of my favorite aspects of the story telling is the show’s refusal to repeat the same clichéd storylines over and over. Much of the drama in the early part of the season derives from Sarah trying to keep her true identity as a clone a secret. Without giving too much away, the truth is revealed to some characters early on, so that the writers can focus on mining tension from other sources. Other shows might have kept the truth about their protagonists a secret for four or five seasons but Orphan Black isn’t interested in providing us with season after season of near misses.
The show never takes itself too seriously either, unafraid to delve into the campy (dude with a tail) or take a break from the sci-fi action. One of my favorite set pieces of the first season involves a suburban neighborhood pot luck gone awry in which one clone must pretend to be another, a husband suspected of villainy is tied up in the basement and tortured with a hot glue gun, two men with actual guns show up looking for answers, and a nosey neighbor lurks behind every door. It’s a well-orchestrated scene with a dozen plates spinning in the air that’s really fun to watch. It also provides a great opportunity for Jordan Gavaris to shine as Felix, Sarah’s gay foster brother. He provides misdirection, schmoozes with the suburban housewife set, and provides withering one-liners as is the wont of Gay Best Friend characters. Felix hits a lot of the familiar GBF beats (emotional support for the heroines, comic relief, sexually promiscuous) but in a way that doesn’t feel tired or repetitive. Felix’s studio apartment, which acts as a home base for the protagonists, is messy, cluttered with punk-pop art, and comes with a sliding front door that requires a jammed screw driver to lock—basically the opposite of the immaculate, cosmopolitan apartments we’ve come to expect from gay characters.
Ultimately, it all comes back to Maslany, who’s given life to so many new, interesting characters in these first ten episodes. Genre television has been lacking lately, especially in the field of strong, female characters. Here’s hoping people take notice of this show so Maslany can take her place among the sci-fi/action heroine all-star roster with Buffy, Sidney Bristow and Starbuck.