March 31, 2013



ORPHAN BLACK:  Saturday 9PM on BBCAmerica – Potential DVR Alert

BBCAmerica’s second foray into original scripted drama, ORPHAN BLACK, while less inherently prestigious than Copper–lacking as it does that show’s historical setting and Tom Fontana auspices–is at least in its first hour a considerably more diverting entertainment.

The first sequence is a grabber.  Petty hustler Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany), on the run from scummy boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando) and with a bag full of his stolen coke to sell, steps off a train platform only to see her exact double calmly fold her clothes and walk onto the tracks to be hit by an oncoming train.  Sarah sees an opportunity in the bizarre coincidence and takes on the other woman’s identity, but in the way of other characters who’ve taken on seemingly innocent identities in movies and TV past, the dead woman, whose name is Beth, turns out to have a more complicated life than Sarah expected–she’s a cop under suspension for the suspicious fatal shooting of a civilian, just to start.

The last scene of the first episode, written by series co-creator Graeme Manson and directed by fellow creator John Fawcett, suggests strongly (as does the show’s placement on BBCA’s “Supernatural Saturdays”) that Sarah and Beth’s identical appearance is due to much more than the possibility that they’re long-lost relatives (Sarah, an orphan, never knew her family).  But the strength of Orphan Black is that before any of these complexities have even been introduced, the show works as a gripping, fast-paced crime drama.  Sarah, constantly thrown for a loop by the surprises in Beth’s life, has to think on her feet (or, in the case of meeting Beth’s boyfriend, on other parts of her anatomy), and the script, far-fetched as it is, holds together logically.

Any role requiring multiple personas is a showcase for its star, and Maslany, a Canadian actress little known in these parts, appears up to the challenge, not just hopping from Sarah to Beth but showing signs of real emotion when Sarah’s daughter, who she abandoned 10 months earlier but now hopes to take back, enters the scene.  For now the other characters seem sketchier, with Vic and Sarah’s gay foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) a bit close to stock roles, but the show still has a long way to go.  The production values of the Canadian co-production are clearly on a budget, and the show doesn’t have the gloss we associate with most American dramas, but Fawcett keeps the focus on the characters and storyline, and those count far more.

By the end of its first hour Orphan Black has just barely scratched the surface of what its ultimate story is likely to be, so it’s premature to say whether the show will pull it all off or not, but it’s a promising debut, and with Saturday nights the most barren on television by far, a welcome arrival.

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."