Like a Geek God #13 by Mark Pursell
Geeking Out: Orphan Black
I’m a sucker for well-done serialized storytelling, i.e. TV shows that have a continuous, over-arching story rather than successive stand-alone episodes. It’s the cinematic equivalent of reading a novel, with everything broken into chapters, and much more running time to delve into the complexities of plot and character than a traditional movie. (Indeed, we are in, or maybe nearing the end of, a new Golden Age of TV spurred by HBO and AMC where creative storytellers have been given the money and the free rein to craft some of the most profound serialized storytelling experiences in history: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and so on). So I followed my traditional modus operandi when starting a new show that I know has a good chance of getting me addicted: I laid in a few bottles of wine, set aside an entire evening when I didn’t have to be up early the next morning, and pressed play on Orphan Black. The show originally aired this past spring but I only heard about ita few months ago, when there was an outcry from the fanbase because of lead actress Tatiana Maslany’s Emmy-nomination snub.
A few friends whose taste I trust urged me to watch the show, which they described to me as a science- fiction drama about cloning.
To say that Orphan Black’s concept is fresh and interesting is an understatement; to say that its approach is both unusual and highly effective is even more so. The revelation that main character Sarah Manning (Maslany), a young drifter and con artist, is one of several identical clones doesn’t come until the beginning of the third episode. In another show—an American network show, for example— we would have launched into the clone mystery almost immediately, with no breath or space allowed to develop the characters and foster investment in them. Instead, creators and writers Graeme Manson and John Fawcett spend the first two 43-minute episodes slowly introducing us to Sarah, the other characters around her, and the disturbing mystery of show’s initial scene: Sarah, waiting on a platform, observes a woman who looks identical to her step in front of a train and die.
Shaken, but opportunistic as always, Sarah makes off with the dead woman’s personal belongings before authorities arrive on the scene. Sheassumes the dead woman’s personality (her name: Elizabeth Childs), less concerned with their seeming identical appearance than the possibility that she may be able to access and make off with Beth’s money, thus enabling Sarah to achieve her primary goal: starting a new life somewhere for herself, her best friend and foster brother, Felix, and her young daughter, Kira. Of course, as Sarah impersonates Beth and becomes more entangled in her life, and as the uncomfortable implications about their identicality become impossible to ignore, darker forces gather around the edges of the conflict, waiting for the right moment to strike. Joining forces with two other clones— suburban wife Alison and graduate student Cosima, who reveal their true nature to Sarah and beseech her help in uncovering the truth behind their existence—Sarah is thrown into conflict with not only the police, a cultish scientist, and a fringe religious group, but also her family, as her foster mother Siobhan (an always excellent Maria Doyle Kennedy) seeks both to understand Sarah’s dilemma and shield Sarah’s daughter Kira from any danger. More often than not, the writers handle these competing elements deftly.
They occasionally leaven the tension with some “impersonation schtick” where theclones have to pretend to be one another, but this mostly (and fortunately) disappears after the midway point. The only time things seem to get out of hand is in the last few episodes, where some logical inconsistencies and confusing factual glosses kicked me out of the narrative a little. But by the last shot of the finale, a revelation you’ve been halfway expecting the entire time plays out, leaving Sarah bereft and more desperate than ever.
In a way, Orphan Black reminds me of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. It deals with many of the same issues regarding biotechnology and identity, as well as affording its lead actress the opportunity to show off her chameleonic abilities by slipping into multiple roles. But where Eliza Dushku’s Echo sufficed by being different facets of Eliza Dushku—each personality was her, essentially, but with an overlay—Tatiana Maslany faces the much stranger task of portraying multiple, very different people, with different tics and personalities. And perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of Orphan Black is watching this ingenious young actress tackle this (these) demanding role(s) with the confidence and panache of a seasoned veteran. Maslany vanishes inside the different clone personae: she is recognizable but also wholly distinct depending on which clone she is portraying, down to the physical way she holds herself, the way she draws breath.
In one crucial scene, where we are supposed to think we are seeing Sarah but it is really another clone in disguise, I knew immediately that it was not the Sarah character—despite the hair and clothes, despite the fact that the scene opens with Maslany sitting stationary—because of how she was sitting. It’s that subtle, and that striking.
The outcry about her lack of nomination for a lead acting Emmy is well-founded. What’s most notable about Orphan Black in the end, though, is the way it hops genres, changing its spots with the same ease as Tatiana Maslany changes her semblance. It’s a science fiction thriller, but it’s also a police procedural, a domestic drama, a commentary on medical ethics, etc., jumping from one to the other and, in an understated way, lampooning each without becoming overtly satirical or parodic. It’s that rare show that has its cake and eats it, too, succeeding at this kind of line-straddling where others that attempt it—Girls, American Horror Story—lose their footing and fall into the crevices between satire and SRS BZNS TV, never to recover. It’s not a perfect show, but—and this is how I define quality or greatness in anything artistic—it transcends the flaws that it does have. Season 2 starts this coming spring. Bring it on.
Mark Pursell is a lifelong geek and lover of words. His publishing credits include Nimrod International Journal, The New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor. His work can most recently be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlando anthology from Burrow Press. He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.