June 2, 2013



Every so often, a show comes along that makes you want to run up to random people in the street and yell “Why aren’t you watching this?”  right in their uncomprehending faces.  ORPHAN BLACK probably wasn’t–OK, wasn’t–the season’s best new show; The Americans, for one, was more layered and expertly crafted.  But Orphan, airing in the obscurity of BBCAmerica and on the windswept wasteland of Saturday nights, was right up there with Scandal as TV’s yowza! thrill-ride of the year, an exhilarating absolutely-anything-might-happen extravaganza wrapped with a neat bow by (with apologies to Claire Danes) the performance of the season, by the until now barely-known Tatiana Maslany.

We throw around phrases like “tour de force” and “high-wire act” all the time about performances we admire, but Maslany’s degree of difficulty here would make the toughest panel of Olympic judges drop their jaws and turn in a string of 10.0s.  Maslany, building on the show’s base protagonist, English-born grifter Sarah Manning, played, as regular characters, four completely separate clones of Sarah as well:  tightly-wound soccer mom Alison, nerdy lesbian geneticist Cosima, homicide detective Beth, and unhinged Eastern European murderess Helena–as well as a sixth seen briefly early in the season and a 7th introduced in tonight’s season finale… and that doesn’t even count the many times, including a crucial instance tonight, when any or all of the clones impersonated one of the others.  (The subtle distinctions of Alison, Sarah, Alison-impersonating-Sarah and Sarah-impersonating-Alison were amazing.)  For much of the season, Maslany performed against no one but herself, which probably means some prop used as a stand-in before digital wizards inserted her other personas.  Just pulling this off technically would have been a major feat, but this wasn’t Eddie Murphy playing all of the Klumps–Maslany did far more than that, convincingly creating five substantive and believable individuals, each of whom had their own psychology, body language, sense of humor (if any), strengths and weaknesses.  It’s hard to even think of a comparable accomplishment–Sally Field in the original Sybil comes to mind, and Anna Deveare Smith’s one-person shows, but both of those very fine actresses were expressing different expressions of the same root person, not separate people who had to physically interact with one another.

Of course, if Orphan Black were no more than a showcase for a spectacular performance, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as the show actually is.  Series co-creators Graeme Manson (credited as the main writer) and John Fawcett (director) built their story slowly and with an emphasis on character, developing Sarah as a sympathetic, likable heroine before the word “clone” was even uttered, and only gradually spinning a tale that was something like a love child (or, more properly, a test tube baby) of David Cronenberg and Joss Whedon, one that balances bio-horror and emotion with sometimes startlingly funny farce.

The season finale had all of that.  One of the advantages of the Orphan Black concept is that since Maslany plays so many roles, any given one of them–even, perhaps, Sarah herself–is potentially expendable, and tonight marked the end of crazy, scary, pitiful Helena, although not before she fatally stabbed her and Sarah’s birth mother (and yet not before the dying woman managed to pass on a crucial piece of information to Sarah).  As if in compensation, we were introduced to Rachel, an icy new clone who actually works for whatever the organization is that manufactured (and, we discovered tonight, has patented) the women; we haven’t seen an org chart, but Rachel may even outrank mad scientist Dr. Leekie (Matt Frewer, Max Headroom himself).  Meanwhile, Cosima may be dying from a respiratory illness that Dr. Leekie had said the clones are prone to getting, and Beth’s cop partner Art (Kevin Hanchard) may know enough to start putting the whole berserk story together.  The show also detonated two long-ticking revelations:  that Alison’s seemingly dopey husband Donnie (Kristian Bruun) is her secret corporate minder, and that Sarah’s foster mother Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy) is probably part of the conspiracy–and has perhaps kidnapped Sarah’s unique biological daughter Kira (Skyler Wexler), although Kira is self-sufficient enough that she may also have run away, pursued by Mrs.S.  That information about Donnie is particularly inconvenient, because in one of the show’s bits of very black comedy, Alison had stood by while her neighbor Aynesley (Natalie Lisinska), who Alison believed to be her watcher, strangled to death via her own garbage disposal unit, while she was vengefully trying to destroy Alison’s angel hand puppet.  (Although the show’s most shockingly hilarious moment remains Helena’s biting off another character’s surgically-created tail.)

Orphan Black has its limitations.  Although the technology that permits multiple Maslanys to share the screen and interact is impeccable, the rest of the show’s production values are below what we’d expect from the higher class of cable drama, and it looks like the Canadian coproduction it in fact is.  Paul (Dylan Bruce), who was once Beth’s lover and watcher and now has an ambiguous relationship with Sarah, hasn’t come to life as a character, and Felix (Jordan Gavaris), Sarah’s gay foster brother, is sometimes used as a comedy relief cliche (although any time Felix has to interact with Alison, it’s reliably hysterical).  You really can’t expect a show to be this relentlessly daring and dazzling without some missteps.

Sadly, hardly anyone is watching Orphan Black; it’s been drawing about 350-400,000 total viewers, perhaps 60% of them under 50, and losing about 70% of its Dr. Who lead-in audience.  Luckily for the forces of truth and justice, that’s still an acceptable rating for BBCAmerica, particularly as it’s trying to build a brand.  (The higher-profile, more expensive Copper has considerably more total viewers, but it’s not that much higher in 18-49s, and it airs on more-watched Sundays.)  The show has been renewed for a second season on the strength of Maslany and its buzz–particularly good news since Season 1 ended with nothing but cliffhangers.  There’s no show on TV that more deserves to be discovered in the off-season via DVD, streaming, and all the other platforms of content available to viewers these days.  Orphan Black may always be a cult show, but that cult should have a lot more members.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."