Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Idiot Boxing: Orphan Black, Season 1 (2013)

After many a recommendation from friends, my wife and I have finally begun watching Orphan Black. The first season certainly shows why this BBC Canada series quickly garnered a dedicated fanbase.

Orphan Black begins in Ontario, Canada, where a young aimless woman named Sarah Manning waits for a train. She is stunned to see a woman who looks exactly like her walk along the platform, methodically put down her belongings, take off her shoes, and then jump in front of an oncoming train. Sarah, ever the opportunist, shakes off her shock enough to grab the suicide's belongings in the hopes of finding any valuables and flees the scene. And so begins a tale that, with every episode, grows more complex and intense.

The 10-part first season moves at a breakneck pace. Each 43-minute episode contains so many plot elements and turns that one can hardly miss a single minute without becoming a little lost. Yet the show never feels rushed. By the fifth episode, we have already been given over a half-dozen clones, some of those clones pretending to be other clones, several grisly deaths, hints at larger conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, a couple of police cases involving mysterious murders, and a handful of spats between Sarah and her foster family. On paper, it seems like a dizzying amount to keep up with, but the pace is compelling rather than frustrating.

As with so many other epic science fiction tales of modern times, Sarah's story begins on a very intimate, small scale and grows to include frighteningly large and powerful conspiracies. Whereas weaker science fiction will often portray such shadowy, powerful groups as either "good" or "bad," things are not quite so clear-cut in Orphan Black. Also, there is some legitimate intelligence and creativity behind the speculation and fiction of the show, involving eugenics, biological purity, and religious fanaticism. It is highly tempting to give far more detail, but a great deal of the show's power comes from the ongoing revelations that we make along with Sarah.

Actress Tatiana Maslany's abilities as a chameleon go well
beyond different clothing and hairstyles. Even if they were in
gray uniforms and were bald, you would be able to tell each
character from the other solely from her performances.
The themes and even the sometimes-graphic violence can be quite dark, but this does not mean that the show is without levity. There is plenty of humor to keep things from becoming overly oppressive. Sarah's foster brother, Felix, is a constant bright spot, and one of Sarah's fellow clones, the ultimate suburban soccer mom Alison, provides more than a few hilarious moments. This balance is welcome, as the show wanders through plenty of dark and disturbing territory much of the time.

One can't write or talk about this show without lauding the incredible performance of lead actress Tatiana Maslany. Through the course of the ten episodes in the first season, Maslany plays no fewer than six clones, each one from a different part of the world, and each with distinctive modes of speech and movement. Maslany's ability to completely sell the idea that each clone truly is a different person is nothing short of amazing.

Anyone who appreciates taut, compelling science fiction, suspense, and/or action movies or TV shows is almost certain to enjoy Orphan Black. The squeamish may need to close their eyes once or twice every few episodes, but the story, characters, and performances are bound to carry you through any distasteful elements. I'm already well into the second season, and I'm still completely enthralled.