End of Season Report: Orphan Black, Season 1

2 Sep

Many Orphans, All White

I like deep and meaningful television shows.  I do.  My favorite shows on TV are wrapped twice over in complicated themes that resonate powerfully and lovingly drawn characters with strong emotional cores, shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad.  Orphan Black is not that.  That’s not to say it’s dumb by any means or unworthy of a modicum of thought; it’s not, and it is.  But you don’t watch Orphan Black and ponder on it in the same way that those shows (and those are the very best on TV, so it’s hardly insulting to be compared unfavorably to them anyway) stick in your head for hours after you finish an episode (Rectify is a new show that fits this profile).  Orphan Black, you watch because, well, it’s a damn fun ride.  You may not want to ruminate too long on the plot or the characters, but when you finish an episode you find yourself immediately throwing on the next one.

I’m required to start my qualitative take on this season, as any article about Orphan Black does and should, by piling accolades upon Tatiana Maslany, who plays main character Sarah Manning along with a bajillion different clones of all shapes and sizes (I think she plays six of them for at least a moment, but I could be missing someone, and yes, technically I suppose they’re all the same size, but I’m trying to make a point).  She does a phenomenal job of portraying not just different accents but plays different looks and expressions and demeanor so well that even though it’s obviously the same actress playing these roles, sometimes I forget and temporarily think they are just two actresses who look really similar.  More than in nearly any other show, or nearly any other main character, Maslany is the foundation of the show and makes the show go, there aren’t many shows where the star quite literally plays multiple characters.

Jordan Gavaris is the other standout cast member, as Sarah’s foster brother and best mate Felix.  He provides the most constant source of comic relief during the series, and his wit is on point, often deflating otherwise serious situations.  His chemistry with Tatiana is outstanding, both during her performances as primary clone Sarah as well as with her other characters (Alison, primarily).  Orphan Black succeeds because it’s fun; a dreary and over serious Orphan Black wouldn’t work, and Gavaris does the heavy lifting in preventing it from getting there.

This is particularly so when the other main cast members, all of whom are fairly peripheral characters, don’t really add a lot.  Dylan Bruce plays charisma-less hunk Paul, who was in a relationship with clone Beth and now takes up with Sarah, while formerly but no longer working for the evil clone corporation.  Kevin Hanchard is dead clone Beth’s police partner, and he’s, well, he’s fine, and he has more charisma than Bruce, but don’t take that as more than it is because it’s an incredibly low bar.  Michael Mando is slightly more amusing as the mentally unstable drug addled former beau of Sarah (what the fuck she was doing with this guy is never satisfactorily resolved – he shows not one redeeming quality in his sporadic appearances in Orphan Black where his only role is as antagonist gumming up the plot).  Maria Doyle Kennedy plays Mrs. S, Sarah and Felix’s foster mom, who has been caring for Sarah’s daughter Kira, and who is stern but caring, and one of the only secondary characters who gets a chance to show a little bit of pathos in the course of the season. And don’t worry if you don’t recognize these actors’ names; they’re largely Canadian; amazingly just about nobody in the cast is even remotely famous from anything else that an American might know.

So, the side characters by and large aren’t the best.  But that’s okay.  Orphan Black is a roller coaster ride, complete with twists and turns as Sarah and soon her clone buddies Alison and Cosima investigate and learn about a shady underground cloning project they were part of.  It gets seriously conspiratorial but never takes on the super-heavy all encompassing tone that BIG sci-fi shows (Lost, of course the most prominent example, but Heroes, Revolution, Under the Dome) tend to take on.  The plot is important, sure, and there are questions – where did they come from – but there’s no BIG deep premise question which could cause the show to implode upon itself.  The show is more action sci-fi than drama, and it keeps the suspense up and the high-brow stuffiness out.

I’ll admit that if you think too much about the plot it comes apart in lots of little ways, and it relies on a whole series of exceptionally unlikely circumstances happening.  These are points that would likely annoy me if I wasn’t having such a good time watching the show.  If the plot of Lost didn’t work (and it didn’t), I would be (and was) devastated because I spent so much time trying to piece everything together and it didn’t work out.  I didn’t think for a second after watching an Orphan Black episode about where everything fits into place.  Every little plot element might not exactly work together, and sure, it should, but I enjoyed it in the moment in a way I couldn’t enjoy Lost because Lost was buried so deep under its own expectations.

My biggest concern is that Orphan Black is not built for too many seasons. I’m not sure how much plot the writers thought out ahead of time, and while, as mentioned above, it doesn’t have to be sewn together tightly to work, it does have to make a minimum of sense and keep the excitement levels up.  Extending the plot line runs the risk of either artificially stretching it out or making it overly complicated.  I want more Orphan Black; I don’t want a show that’s like Revolution or Under the Dome.  I want a bunch of clones acting in ridiculous ways, and conspiring with one another to infiltrate some vaguely evil corporation.  I don’t want to greater lessons about mankind.

3 Responses to “End of Season Report: Orphan Black, Season 1”

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  3. Robert May 1, 2016 at 2:45 am #

    I too thought for a while that the plot of “Lost” didn’t work, and that I’d been cheated by my friend, who happened to be the show’s maker, Damon Lindelof. But eventually I got more clues from background material and realized the plot did indeed make sense, it just wasn’t made explicit. To understand it, read at http://users.bestweb.net/~robgood/teach . You just have to accept a massive amount of obfuscation by the show, putting the audience in the position of many of the characters by not being told key details, and therefore misunderstanding what really happened. Hint: It wasn’t a science fiction show after all, except for the invention of one device, which can knock persons out at a distance and render them subject to brainwashing, such as that they’d traveled in time and that doubles of themselves they met were themselves at a different time, or that they’d survived an airliner crash.

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