I was afraid to watch Orphan Black. You see, so many people had told me it was good, that it was excellent, that it was brilliant, that it made me fear it couldn’t possible live up to expectations.
It probably doesn’t help that I enjoy—truly enjoy, as opposed to find sufficiently entertaining for the purposes of distraction—a very limited amount of television, and most of that only ends up disappointing me before the end. But Orphan Black’s first season finally came out on DVD for my region, and I finally had a couple of hours to myself—and seven hours later, I, too, had become an Orphan Black evangelist.
This is REALLY GOOD STUFF, people. REALLY BLOODY GOOD. Make me MORE LIKE THIS.
Spoilers for season one.
Sarah, a grifter and petty criminal, is on her way back to New York to reconnect with her young daughter, Kira, after a year’s absence. On the train platform, she sees a woman who looks exactly like her commit suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming train. Sarah being Sarah, she steals the dead woman’s purse and ID, planning to impersonate her long enough to clean out her bank accounts.
But it turns out that Beth, the dead woman, was entangled in dangerous events. And by impersonating her, Sarah inherits her problems—along with her own. Because Sarah and Beth aren’t long-lost twin sisters. They’re clones, and someone has been killing the others.
And still is. As Sarah meets her fellow clones—the postgraduate scientist Cosima who’s trying to secretly unravel the mystery of their genome; Allison, the suburbanite 1950s-style stay-at-home mother of two adopted children who drinks too much and who’s desperate to keep her outwardly-perfect American Dream life safe; and Helena, the abused, religiously-inspired murderer who believes she and Sarah have a “special connection”—she and her foster brother Felix get drawn into the series of secrets and discoveries… all the while trying to prove to Mrs S., Kira’s guardian and Sarah’s former foster mother, that Sarah can be trusted to take care of Kira.
It is an astonishingly good show. It’s not only tightly written and well-shot (although Canadian cityscapes don’t look a lot like New York), but Tatiana Maslany is an amazing actor. Some actors spend their entire careers playing variations on themselves (Nathan Fillion, for example). But Maslany plays up to half-a-dozen different characters in the course of an episode, and each of them are clearly different. Maslany’s control of her body-language and facial expressions is amazing, so that Maslany playing Allison is different from Maslany playing Sarah masquerading as Allison.
The variety of female characters might not be matched by the number of female characters played by different actors, but every episode passes the Bechdel test. All of the characters are interestingly flawed, and all of them are trying to do their best with what they’ve got.They change and grow over the course of the season, as we—and they—discover more about themselves and the mystery at whose heart they stand.
And in addition to being tense, sharply-written, and portraying great female characters, it’s occasionally startlingly funny.
It’s not just astonishingly lacking in the usual run of television sexism. It has great, positive depictions of queer sexuality. It’s not just Felix, camp gay artist with his string of lovers, drug paraphernalia, and withering scorn for suburbia—an incredibly entertaining character, and one the narrative doesn’t judge at all for being who he is. Positive depictions of gay male sexuality aren’t all over television screens, but they’re still more common than the female counterpart. But Orphan Black doesn’t stop with Felix: although he’s present from the start, later on we learn that Cosima is attracted to women. Her complicated relationship with the scientist Delphine—a woman who works for the people who seem to have created the clones and are monitoring their lives—isn’t the point at which I fell head-over-heels in love with Orphan Black (that point was early on in the third episode) but it was certainly the point at which I realised that my love for it wasn’t going to burn out any time soon.
It is a fantastic show, and a fascinating one, full of arguments about parenthood and relationships, nature and nurture, self and other, truth and lies. I can understand why it’s won or been nominated for a whole slew of awards, because this is freaking awesome.
I can’t wait until I can watch the second season on DVD and find out what happens next. If you’ve been hesitating over whether or not to watch this show? Stop now. Go watch it. It is amazing.
And I want more.