April 20, 2014

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Orphan Black”


ORPHAN BLACK:  Saturday 9PM on BBCAmerica

In an era of non-stop TV drama overhype, last season’s arrival of ORPHAN BLACK was that extreme rarity:  the real thing.  Even its network didn’t seem to know initially what it had on its hands, as BBCAmerica promoted the show, but reserved the bulk of its marketing resources for the expensive disappointment Copper.  Those who watched Orphan Black from the start were intrigued, soon enough delighted, and then downright electrified, because aside from the general pleasure of discovering a first-rate show that was barely on anyone’s radar, it quickly became clear that Orphan‘s star, the previously unknown Tatiana Maslany, was pulling off something absolutely phenomenal, perhaps even historic, on a weekly basis:  playing 7 distinct characters from different countries and with widely varying personalities who happened to be clones of one another (5 of them with major roles) and who often interacted with, and not infrequently passed themselves off as, each other.  (As though to thumb their collective nose at the very notion that there’s anything Maslany can’t do, in tonight’s Season 2 premiere, series creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett had her singing and dancing as well.  Presumably future episodes will feature her juggling chainsaws while walking a tightrope.)

That season premiere, written and directed by Manson and Fawcett (Manson takes credit as writer, Fawcett as director), picked up moments after last season’s finale, and was as fast-paced as a movie thriller.  When we’d last seen British grifter Sarah (assume all women in the cast are played by Maslany unless told otherwise), she’d just discovered that her daughter Kira (Skyler Wexler), along with her foster mother Siobhan (Maria Doyle Kennedy), had been abducted.  Sarah spent most of the episode assuming that they’d been taken by the evil Dyad Institute, personified by the smooth Dr. Leekie (Matt Frewer) and the menacing “proclone” Rachel.  Dyad created the clones as part of the still-mysterious Project Leda, and keeps a close eye on each of them through spies it calls Monitors who are close to each woman.  Sarah learned in the closing moments of the hour, however, that Kira and Siobhan were apparently in the hands instead of the religious anti-clone movement that had nurtured the homicidal and quite simply batty Ukranian clone Helena, who spent much of last season stalking and sometimes killing her fellow clones.  (She and Sarah had a weirdly special bond because they shared the same birth mother–who Helena murdered in the finale.)  This led to the even bigger reveal that Helena, shot several times and left for dead by Sarah in the finale, was very much alive.

Time was also spent with the two other major clone characters.  Alison, the tightly-wound soccer mom who provides much of the show’s humor, had (temporarily, at least) quit drinking and pill-popping for the joys of community theatre (hence the singing and dancing), but was still able to score an illegal handgun for Sarah from Ramon, who works at a local car lot and apparently deals in just about anything.  Cosima, the American graduate student who has a respiratory illness that’s plagued other clones, was still trying to work out the loyalties of her designated Monitor and lover Delphine (Evelyne Brochu).  Sarah, seemingly betrayed by her own Monitor/lover Paul (Dylan Bruce), was ready to tell the whole story to police Detective Art Bell (Kevin Hanchard), who was the partner of yet another clone, Beth, whose suicide kicked off the whole story when Sarah saw her fling herself into the path of an oncoming train and stole her identity.

The premiere had just about everything one could want from Orphan Black, from a high-powered action sequence to start things off that required Sarah to kick her way through a diner’s bathroom wall, Sarah Connor style, to escape from the murderous religious fanatic on her tail; to an opportunity for Sarah to beat the crap out of Rachel; to an encounter between an outraged Alison and Sarah’s stoned BFF and foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), each of whom regards the other as an only vaguely human alternative species; to Sarah having to pretend to be Cosima to gain access to a Dyad banquet.  That last scene, as much as any, provided a measure of Maslany’s genius, as she managed to play Cosima in a way that conveyed that Sarah almost, but not quite, had the character down, making subtle mistakes that only Delphine caught.

It was Manson and Fawcett’s masterstroke to depict the various clones as completely separate characters, rather than as the carbon copies that have usually signified “clone” in pop culture, but of course none of it would work without Maslany, who’s so assured in every one of her component performances that even technology-heavy scenes like the Sarah/Cosima meeting and the Sarah/Rachel fight play as if entirely separate actresses were playing both parts.  The stunt aspect of the show is so strong that it would be easy to underrate the substance, but the scripts are remarkably good at keeping the complicated action clear and maintaining a consistent level of humor and heart.  This is Whedon-quality work, which is as high as praise gets in this genre.

Orphan Black was a succes d’estime in its first season, which is to say that although an increasingly large number of people talked about it, the ratings were consistently terrible:  after a decently-watched premiere that aired after a Doctor Who finale, only 300-400,000 people tuned in for each episode.  (Probably the reason that Maslany couldn’t muster enough votes for an Emmy nomination, although the Golden Globes recognized her work.)  BBCAmerica is desperately hoping that enough people caught up with the series during the off-season for the ratings to take a quantum leap forward this year, and no show on TV deserves it more.  A seeming infinitude of TV shows these days claim to be exciting and different, but Orphan Black actually delivers.

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."