Orphan Black debuts tonight on BBC America at 9 p.m. Eastern.
About halfway through tonight’s series première of Orphan Black, the show’s protagonist, Sarah Hawking, finds herself in a complicated problem. She’s been called to an inquest of sorts, to answer for the crimes of Beth Childs, the woman whose life she’s assumed, and she has no idea what Beth did, much less what her answer should be to keep the story more or less similar to what Beth said before (thus avoiding jail time or worse). The first step is easy. She excuses herself to the restroom to buy herself time to think. But the next step is what will convince a great many viewers that this is the show for them: Sarah steps up and does something wholly and completely unexpected to escape having to face down Beth’s crimes. It’s a moment that speaks to all of the things good TV storytelling does: It backs the characters into a seemingly inescapable corner, then gets her what she wants via the most improbable of solutions. It’s the kind of trick it’s all too rare to see on TV, much less done well, yet it’s all over Orphan Black.
Too much storytelling on TV and in the movies doesn’t take its time to come up with something unexpected. Sure, the character might get backed into a corner, but they’re usually saved by the easiest possible answer, the one that the audience has already arrived at, or by some deus ex machina, by some other character jumping in and saving their bacon. There are a handful of moments like this in Orphan Black, but for the most part, Sarah gets out of her scrapes via solutions that most viewers will never think of, and it’s a jolt to watch the show’s writers and directors (led by creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, respectively) push her into corner after corner, then see how she squirms her way out. Everything here is crystal clear. The characters’ motivations are always perfectly defined. The series’ central mysteries are at once simple enough to understand at a glance—just why did Beth do the awful thing she did?—and gain in complexity over the four episodes sent out to critics. This is just solid storytelling all around.
It’s anchored by an absolutely fantastic performance, too. To say too much about all of the shades young actress Tatiana Maslany has to show as Sarah/Beth would be spoiling the fun of the show, but by episode four, Maslany’s doing so many tricky, intricate bits of acting and making it look easy. She establishes Sarah, Beth, and Sarah-as-Beth as wholly separate characters, then explores just about every waypoint in between. The central idea behind Orphan Black—woman assumes the identity of another woman who looks just like her—has been done before, including most recently on Ringer and The Lying Game, but it’s never been anchored by an actress as confident and terrific at it as Maslany is. Those who don’t realize the true greatness of what she’s doing after just the première will almost certainly feel that way after episode four. Maslany is in every scene, and she’s rarely afraid to let the characters she plays be fairly noxious people, either, as when it’s evident that Sarah has simply infiltrated Beth’s life to take as much of her stuff as she can. Granted, she has a solid motive to do so, but Sarah can be a bit much, and it’s to the show’s credit that she’s not always completely likable.
Orphan Black also takes its time laying out its story. It gets its central coincidence—Sarah and Beth are identical but have never met—in the first minute of the première, and it’s off to the races from there. It’s astonishing just how thoroughly everything that happens spirals outward from that inciting incident, how Sarah’s decision to do something that seems incredibly convenient in the moment but soon reveals itself to have hidden complications results in the whole story of the show unfolding. There’s no attempt to cram every single thing about the premise into the première. Indeed, one of the most important parts of said premise doesn’t arrive until episode three (though most astute viewers who are genre fans will have put it together long before that, because the show plays fair and doesn’t mind if viewers guess its secrets). By and large, the audience learns things as Sarah does, and Sarah is very believably attempting to not get drawn too far into the weirdness. It’s tempting to compare that rigorous structure to Breaking Bad, and while this show doesn’t have the thematic depth or the piece-by-piece storytelling method of that show—yet—it’s just nice to see another series realize how enjoyable this way of unfolding a series can be.
It’s probably best to know as little as possible about Orphan Black as you can going in, because the series operates so thoroughly via both surprise and its perfect guidance of the audience to the surprises it has in store. Suffice to say that Sarah is on the phone with someone about the daughter she abandoned almost a year ago, she sees Beth, Beth does something stupid, then Sarah does something stupid as well. And the show is off. The storytelling style seems heavily influenced by shows like Alias (indeed, Sarah-as-Beth even ends up working closely with an older, black partner, played by Kevin Hanchard as one of the few rocks either Sarah or Beth can rely on), with its headlong rush deeper and deeper into genre-based mysteries, as well as the way every episode ends on a thrilling cliffhanger. But there are elements of the conspiracy from X-Files here, too, as well as a surprisingly involving cop show mixed into everything else. These are all things that have become tired from overuse in recent years, but done well, they can still be considerable pleasures.
It’s not just Sarah/Beth, nor is it just Maslany, who make this show as fun as it is. The series is crammed full of great characters, like Sarah’s foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), a gay artist who ostensibly is there to play the role of the person keeping Sarah from getting in too deep, even though he, himself, is enthralled by the exciting narrative she’s found herself in. (Felix is also here to be the comic relief. That it never feels forced is another testament to the show’s quality writing.) There’s also Mrs. S. (Maria Doyle Kennedy), a middle-aged woman who functions as a link to Sarah’s past, and all of the people still in Sarah’s life who make it so easy for her to abandon it to become Beth. And then there’s Paul (Dylan Bruce), Beth’s boyfriend, who senses something is up but also rather likes whatever’s gotten into his girlfriend.
To be honest, there are warning flags all over Orphan Black. Alias disappeared up its own mythology, and the shot that closes episode four almost made me groan from remembering how thoroughly the X-Files was eaten by its conspiracy storylines. The series is also a part of this weird Canadian science fiction renaissance we’re in right now. Fellow members include Lost Girl and Continuum, and like both of those shows, the low-budget production values will be a deal-breaker for some. (The show is so low-budget that there are few—if any—times when Maslany shares the screen with herself, seemingly a prerequisite for a series about people who look identical to each other.) But for those who can look past the low budget and get over their fears about how on Earth this could possibly be a long-running series instead of a miniseries, there’s so much fun to be had in the depths of Orphan Black’s labyrinthine plotting and endless forward momentum, and there’s even more fun to be had watching the young woman at its center make her way through the maze.
- We’re pretty gung-ho about this show (in case you couldn’t tell), so expect to hear more about it. We’ll be adding it weekly.