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Spring 2013 Review: Orphan Black

2 Aug


Orphan Black takes place in what seems to be the very near future in what I think is actually Toronto but seems to be an unnamed Canadian city.  I can tell it’s the near future because it looks pretty much like today but the train station at the beginning is called “Huxley Station” which sounds like a perfect dystopian name for a train station and it seems like their science is ever so slightly more advanced than ours.

Sarah, who we don’t even know is Sarah at this point, is transferring trains when she sees a woman slowly and methodically put her bag down, take her shoes off, and walk right out in front of a train.  Watching a woman commit suicide would be traumatizing in any situation, but the thing is, this woman looked exactly, and I mean exactly, like Sarah.  Sarah, who seems to be some kind of minor criminal personage, thinks enough to take the woman’s bag.

It turns out Sarah is on the run from a crazy ex-beau, Vic, and back into whatever this city is, where she’s left her best friend/foster brother, Felix, and her kid (looks to be about, I don’t know 6?), for the better part of a year.  She’s being chased by said ex-beau, and a brilliant idea comes to her when she snoops around and find out that the woman who killed herself has a nice apartment and 75K in the bank, and really, really looks like her.  She’ll pretend the dead body was hers and take over the woman’s life.  What Sarah wants at this point is to get her daughter, who’s being raised by her foster mom, and Felix, and get out of Dodge (proverbially; I don’t think the city is named Dodge, though I can’t be certain).

Problem is, she realizes, the woman, Elizabeth Childs, has troubles of her own.  She’s a cop, who has to face an inquest after shooting a civilian a few months ago, apparently has some sort of pill-popping issues, and has birth certificates from other woman born around the same time as Sarah and herself in a safe deposit box.  Sarah gets a call, on Beth’s phone, from someone, who is on one of the birth certificates.

She’s watching her own wake from afar when a German who has pink hair but otherwise looks exactly like her gets into her car, and then very shortly after gets shot; the person on the phone tells her to go bury the body, which she does.

All Sarah wants to get out of town with some money, Felix, and her daughter, who she’s hoping won’t think she’s dead, but before she can do that she has to get through the troubles that Beth’s life has caused her, while still facing her inherent curiosity into why there are several people running around town who look exactly like her, and a couple of them seem to be dying.

Tatiana Maslany, who plays Sarah, and every Sarah lookalike, gives an incredible performance as multiple characters with different looks and personalities; she’s so convincing at separating the characters that I often forget that it’s her playing every role. The show gives you just enough information to make you really want to know more about what’s going on.  Many serial science fiction shows try this feat – to dole just enough plot  each episode to make you hungry for what you’re missing, but it’s a difficult pacing battle that most shows in this genre fail at.

Additionally, very few succeed in the most important test for a first episode – after I finished watching, do I immediately want to pop on the next episode.  I did, when watching Orphan Black, which feels more like a tight science fiction thriller than one of these grand central mystery science fiction shows like Under the Dome, Revolution, or Terra Nova, etc.   It also has some of the classic paranoia/conspiracy vibe of ‘70s neonoir; there are people watching you everywhere, you never know if anybody is really on your side or working against you, and you don’t know if anybody really is who they say they are.

On first impression, Orphan Black feels cool (I know that’s such a non-technical world, but that’s really the first word that comes to mind, both in the sense of low-key ’70s sunglasses-on slick, and the thirteen year old (or hell, me, still) watching a stadium implode thinking “that’s so cool”) and well-executed. The camera work is smooth, the plot moves, not action-movie fast, but fast enough that it never feels plodding, and we know just enough to know how little we know. We follow along with Sarah, knowing, for the first episode anyway, what she knows and nothing more, and we’re constantly being surprised when she finds a new piece of the puzzle.

There’s always the caveat that these things go wrong, because it’s easy to screw up, but I think this should be less difficult to handle than the big sci-fi shows (Revolutions, Under the Domes, etc) because Orphan Black smartly slowly rolls out its premise, rather than putting out an epic central mystery right away which is hard to fulfill while being both plausible but not anticlimactic.  It should be easier to have a taut story that works, unless this plot goes so much wider and deeper than I’m imagining at this point. Again, dramas are lost but rarely won in the first episode but there’s easily enough here to move forward. It’s fun, which is something a lot of the more bloated science fiction shows on television lose in their attempt at deeper meaning and emotional heft.

Will I watch it again?  Yeah.  It was pretty exciting, and had a cool factor, like a well-engineered science-fiction action movie.  Plus, there’s only ten episodes, so the commitment is relatively minimal, which doesn’t hurt.  It’s a fun ride without any of the huge overarching-ness of the epic sci-fi series that have just disappointed me over and over again in recent years.