I’ve been meaning to watch Orphan Black for a while now. The concept’s pure science fiction schlock: a woman discovers that she’s one of an unknown number of genetic clones distributed around the world for the sake of some shady clandestine science experiment in transhumanism, and she along with a few of the other clones goes about trying to figure out what precisely is going on. Throw in a bit of police drama, a serial killer plot line, and lots of family angst, and you have Orphan Black.
The show’s gimmick, that all of the clones are played by the same actress in a variety of costumes and make up, is a cute one, and Tatiana Maslany does enough to distinguish each of her characters in mannerism and appearance that it’s an easy premise to accept. In some ways the concept is reminiscent of Joss Whedon’s show Dollhouse, which, aside from also being about shady science and human test subjects, had at its core a similar concept with its lead actress, Eliza Dushku, portraying a variety of personalities in different situations. There are some obvious differences between the two (Dushku’s Echo was a tabula rasa character who never sustained any particular personality for more than an episode, while Maslany has at least three regular roles to portray consistently, and in conjunction with her other characters, over the course of the whole season), and Maslany’s trick comes across as much more engaging than Dushku’s, especially in the laughably common circumstances that lead to various clones pretending to be one another and thus involving Maslany doing one of her characters doing an impression of one of her other characters.
This is the best reason to watch the show, hands down.
If the prospect of watching a capable actress basically showing off all the time, I guess there’s also the plot and characters, which I would generally describe as “fun.” Sarah Manning, the show’s protagonist, is a con artist who’s trying to escape from an abusive relationship and get together enough money to start over with her young daughter, who’s been left in the care of Sarah’s foster mother. Sarah thinks she’s had a lucky break when she witnesses a woman who looks exactly like her commit suicide at a train stop and decides to take over her doppelganger’s life, framing the woman’s death as her own with the help of her foster brother Felix, but Sarah soon learns that she’s impersonating a cop being investigated for a wrongful shooting death. Things sort of spiral out into absurdity from there. It’s not all super engaging, or particularly lofty storytelling, but it works as a bit of brain candy. When the show’s major villains, a movement known as “Neolutionism,” get introduced there’s some truly eye-roll worthy stuff (it’s all just a repackaged, sinister version of transhumanism and body mod subculture), but you go with it because you remember this is a BBC sci-fi show, and that means it has a pedigree in line with Doctor Who, which is more often science fantasy than anything else.
A few of the major flaws in the first season revolve around the character of Helena, a clone who was raised by an abusive religious cult to believe that she’s the genetic original and she has to kill all of the other clones in order to please God. Helena has a few moments where she’s genuinely sympathetic, but her plot line spends the vast majority of its time reveling in just how messed up and dangerous she is. Much of it’s pretty standard serial killer stuff, and it’s hard to maintain interest (I inaccurately predicted that her plot would be wrapped up in two episodes and was chagrined to realize she sticks around for the whole season) in a relatively rote plot in a show with otherwise unusual mashups of traditional thriller tropes. There’s a lot of back and forth over whether Helena can be reformed (this question doesn’t just apply to her; pretty much everyone on the show besides Felix goes through a rapid series of shifts in allegiance so that it can be difficult to parse out everyone’s alignment from episode to episode), but it lacks any real tension; Helena never seems seriously interested in reforming, and the question of her rehabilitation remains moot while she’s merrily running around the city pretending to be Sarah at inopportune moments.
Besides the plot problems of Helena, one other major point against the show is its overwhelming whiteness. It’s somewhat fair to say that the conceit of the clones makes it justifiable to have so many white women, but the overall ratio of white actors to people of color is massively out of balance. Sarah’s accidental police partner Art is the only regular Black character, and her drug dealer ex-boyfriend Vic is the only Latino one. Late in the season another Black character is introduced, but she’s only around for two episodes before she’s violently killed off (I’m really tired of this trope in film and TV). Maybe things will be better in future seasons (I’ve not seen anything beyond the finale of the first season at this point), but I’ll believe a show can do better with racial diversity when I see it actually happen.