Review: BBC America’s ‘Orphan Black’ has fun with many faces

Senior Television Writer
03.29.13 24 Comments

There are some weeks so full of premieres that I don’t have time to actually write reviews of all the shows I would like to, and then I content myself with the thought that at least I discussed them on the podcast with Dan.

But of course not everybody listens to the podcast, and I wanted to take some of the praise about “Orphan Black” from this week’s show and put it into written form. A busy day, so let’s go right to the bullet points:

* It debuts tomorrow night at 9 on BBC America (after the return of “Doctor Who”), and is BBC America’s second original scripted series after “Copper.” If anything, it’s more Canadian than it is either American or British, since it’s filmed in Toronto and has a bunch of Canadian actors and producers (Graeme Manson, who co-created it with John Fawcett, used to work on “Flashpoint”).

* It stars Tatiana Maslany as Sarah, a petty crook who came over from England with her foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris). In yet another spot of trouble, she finds herself on a train platform right as a woman who looks exactly like her decides to jump onto the tracks and commit suicide. Sarah sets out to rob the dead woman, Beth, but instead backs into assuming her identity, which causes a host of problems, not least because Sarah keeps running into other doppelgangers, all of whom seem to know more about what’s going on than she does.

* So it’s two hooks in one: identity theft and the mystery of all the lookalikes. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that while a lot of high-concept shows barely seem to have any ideas beyond the initial one-line description, the “Orphan Black” creators have clearly thought all of this through. The show does a very good job of showing how one decision leads to another, to another and another, all of them making Sarah’s life more complicated and dangerous, and very little of it feeling contrived. As Dan put it on the podcast, it’s a much better version of the kind of show the CW so often tries to make.

* Maslany, who was an unknown to me, is terrific. She not only has to play multiple roles, but is often asked to play one of them impersonating another (and not just Sarah-as-Beth), and she very clearly delineates who is who and what’s special about them. She gets help from wardrobe and hair and makeup, but a lot of it’s in the performance, which is both versatile and also charismatic in the way any single-lead show needs.

* Basically, it’s fun: creepy when it needs to be, light when it can be (which is more often than you’d expect, given the life and death stakes), doesn’t look too cheap (it has an easier time than “Copper,” in that it doesn’t have to recreate an earlier time period). BBC America sent the first four episodes for review. I was going to watch just one or two so I could discuss it on the podcast, and wound up happily watching all four, and will likely stick with it for a while to see where it goes.

That is all. Resume partying.

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