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July 3, 2013

What You Should Be Watching: Orphan Black

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Yesterday we covered the latest happenings on MTV's Teen Wolf, which I find delightful, but I can understand might not be for everyone. So today let's tak about a grown up show: BBC America's Orphan Black, which is one of the best shows I've seen in a long while. It's a smart, fast-paced dystopian near-future exploration of family and government and identity, the possibilities and problems posed by continuing scientific advancement. The pilot, which first aired at WonderCon this March, follows a down-on-her-luck sometimes-grifter named Sarah Manning who witnesses the suicide of a woman who looks exactly like her and decides to assume the dead woman's identity in an attempt to escape her own troubles: a deadbeat ex-boyfriend, a drug deal gone wrong, and estrangement from her daughter, Kira, who she hasn't seen in ten months. The plan is to steal whatever she can carry out of the woman, Beth's apartment, reunite with Kira and get out of town.

It's impossible to get into what happens next without some general spoilers, but you'll be unsurprised to hear that it isn't nearly that simple. Sarah tries to take a massive withdrawl out of Beth's savings account and ends up having to wait a day for the transfer to go through; she gets swept up into the complications of Beth's life, and ultimately discovers that she and Beth weren't the only women running around town with indetical faces. In fact, the two women are part of a set of at least ten other clones; several of them have recently become aware of one another, though they don't know who created them or why. 

The rest of the season deals with women of what Sarah calls Clone Club making those discoveries and dealing with their consequences. One of the things the show does remarkably well is to set up a twisty, complicated plot that never seems either impenetrable or overly obvious. Every episode it explains three or four things and creates mystery around two or three more: the season asks a series of smaller, building questions instead of the same big one over and over again. It's a nice break from the more standard supernatural thriller format, which establishes one Big Bad each season and then pads it out with one-off case-centric episodes, characters solving smaller mysteries that more often than not have no bearing on the endgame drama we're geared towards.

The show is also unusual in its focus on women, the time and space it gives its female characters to speak. Each clone is distinct from the others, and we get to know three of them (Sarah, soccer mom Allison and scientist Cosima) fairly well. Their primary relationships are with one another; they have lovers and friends and chlidren, but the show it ultimately about the complicated bonds of sisterhood, and the construction of the families we are born into, and those we create for ourselves. Sarah grew up with a foster mother, Mrs. S., and a foster brother named Felix who's one of the show's few male main characters. He's a bit of a gay stereotype, a flamboyant artist who lives in a graffitti-covered loft and teaches kids to crossdress when he babysits-- but Jordan Gavaris plays him with so much nuance and warmth that what otherwise might be too broad stays human, and very often endearing.

The real star, though, is Tatiana Maslany, who has to play Sarah and Beth and Allison and Cosima, plus the various other clones who show up for shorter periods along the way. Each one has a distinct look (and often her own accent) which helps distinguish them, but it's Maslany's acting that animates the women, makes them more than a collection of traits, a haircut or accent, a soccer mom or scientist. That's the reason the show works, ultimately: it's an exploration of identity, and it wouldn't be nearly so powerful without Maslany's thoughtful performances, the sense that each of these women is fully formed and entirely human, tied by DNA to her sisters but undoubtedly leading her very own life.

The first season finished airing on BBC America in June; the second will be coming in 2014. 

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