Review: Orphan Black, Series Premiere

jason stives looks at the new BBC America series …

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If one thing is true in 2013 it’s that cable networks are slowly becoming the new empire in television and are outshining the tried and true big networks. Channels like AMC, FX, and USA have been pumping out original programming for the better part of a decade now and their success and lack of a rule book has allowed their shows to be edgier and more daring than the primetime channels. BBC America has only recently started exploring this avenue with last year’s original program, Copper, proving to be a critical hit and brought in solid ratings by following their flagship program, Doctor Who.

Photo: Steve Wilkie for BBC AMERICA
Photo: Steve Wilkie for BBC AMERICA

Orphan Black, the second BBC American original series, looks to repeat that same success by following behind Who as part of the channel’s returning Supernatural Saturday line up. The show, a science fiction thriller based around the idea of dopplegangers, has an intriguing premise and while the first episode is a bit shaky in the execution and set up — it is saved by its pacing and a very strong female lead.

The show’s lead character, Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) is introduced as a stranger asleep on a train heading to New York. She is an orphan, she speaks with an English accent and is a product of the streets looking to make ends meet. She is a foster child whose closest friend is her adopted brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris) and she tries to make money by doing dangerous things like selling cocaine. Oh, and she has a child named Rita, who she hasn’t seen in 10 months and has left in the care of her foster mother, Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy). It’s a gray world for this beautiful young girl until the night she meets a woman identical to her on a train platform. Before she can figure out the reason behind this, the woman, Beth, removes her shoes and jumps in front of a train. We are then treated to one of the coolest James Bond-esque opening title sequences and already we have a solid set up. However, the premiere sadly lacks care in certain areas that would be essential to establishing the show’s universe.

Beyond our lead, the supporting roles are fleshed out to serve their purpose but there is more room for growth than was showcased. Indeed, Sarah is the most noteworthy character thus far, as she should be, but you want to understand her world through the people she associates herself with. Felix is the very sassy best friend who will do anything for his adopted sister but he feels like such a cheesy caricature. Other characters are left as dangling plot threads but maybe that is all part of the plan. Something in me wants to believe this all part of a bigger picture. The show’s creators, Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, spent the better part of a decade perfecting this world before finally shopping the show around so one can only assume these roles will be of importance down the line. Still, it makes the overall world of Orphan Black a bit gray and difficult to warm to. The setting is no better especially since it claims to be New York but could be any non-descript city in the world.

Credit: Stevie Wilkie for BBC America
Credit: Stevie Wilkie for BBC America

The first episode struggles with setting up a palpable universe but the two things, and they are important, that will keep the show’s interest afloat is the clever concept and the show’s dynamic star. Young Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany is riveting as Sarah and its her performance and how she handles herself that makes you continue to watch with great interest. This is the kind of part that young actors can only hope will come around; the chance to flex your abilities that most actors wait years to showcase. When you learn the secret to the show — that her and Beth are just part of a group of clones — it makes the possibilities of the various personalities she can play that more exciting. This is the kind of hard-edged science fiction that most shows only linger with and it’s what holds the show together. Not much is divulged in the first episode about where Sarah and Elizabeth come from in particular and that’s more than okay because it keeps the mystery alive, hopefully, for awhile.

Cloning in sci-fi lore is nothing new and it’s probably one of the most tried and true concepts next to time travel and dystopian societies but rarely has it been given a solid exploration in television. What helps is Sarah and her deceased twin counterpart are both troubled lost souls dug into predicaments. Identity is everything here and it’s no surprise that Sarah decides to assume the identity of her now deceased twin seeing that she clearly has a better life than her own. At first it’s fine for Sarah until the mystery of Beth unravels and you soon learn that her life is no better than Sarah’s. This is a show that focuses squarely on all those questions of identity and how leaving your past behind doesn’t mean you can forget where you came from. Sarah is a lost soul and despite an attempt to change that by taking someone else’s life things don’t seem to get better and her past suddenly comes back to haunt her.

Photo Credit: Steve Wilkie for BBC America
Photo Credit: Steve Wilkie for BBC America

For all the flaws in the set up and the less interesting characters, you want to know more. By the episode’s climax, while I was left bewildered about some of the plot points, I knew I wanted to see what happens next. That’s the beauty of shows centered around mystery; the mystery, if front and center the whole time, can make up for the lingering issues that surface. The viewer becomes the detective; the one putting the pieces of the puzzle together with the characters and sometimes you are a few steps ahead. Orphan Black surely has this going for it and with a very interesting and likable lead it will hopefully continue a strong growth in the coming weeks and hopefully be the next break out science fiction show on television.

Rating: 7 out of 10 (Very Good)

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