Orphan Black Season 1 (2013)

I watched a lot of good TV in 2013 (my 1988-self can’t believe it.) Netflix scored big with Arrested Development (fabulously intricate avant-garde comedy) and Orange is the New Black (best of the year); on DVD I caught up with Homeland (season 2 was mostly a dud) and Game of Thrones (ditto), plus the entire run of Deadwood (astonishing); Mad Men and Breaking Bad were worth iTunes season passes to download their latest next-day; ABC’s Scandal has been the best thing on traditional network TV in years. As someone without a cable subscription, I’m more than happy with streaming services (I use Netflix and Hulu), which are only getting better.

BBC America’s Orphan Black (iTunes) is an odd duck that could probably only exist in such a weirdly fragmented market. It sells itself as sci-fi but more closely resembles a conspiracy thriller; it SHOULD be a whacked-out dramatic farce. Tatiana Maslany is the best thing about the show – so much better than the material, you’re positive the show’s creators had no idea what to do with her.

Maslany plays four major characters and has moments as three more. She’s playing clones (it’s where the sci-fi moniker comes in. Don’t want the audience thinking this is a documentary.) The show doesn’t really take off until the 3rd episode, which is when you start to gape at Maslany’s performances. The tricks that allow her to play against herself are seamless, which is the best I can say for the production itself (it’s mostly not worthy of her.)

Episode 6, just past halfway into season one’s 10 episodes, gives a hint about how much funnier and farcical the whole thing should have been. One of the clones is an upper-class American suburban housewife, and the low-life British thief clone is called on to take her place at a neighborhood potluck. Maslany keeps the characters distinct to both the show’s audience and to the fictional neighbors; she juggles several distinct accents and we always know when her character is faking it. It’s twisted brilliance that the season’s remaining four episodes never recover from. They keep you watching, but barely.

Orphan Black plays fast and loose with its narration. To work dramatically, we need to stay in the POV of one of the clones. Maybe the creators didn’t trust the audience – too often we go where they don’t; too much is revealed that might have been played out more effectively over time. Or maybe the writers weren’t sure if they’d be renewed, so they wanted to ensure a wrap-up for those who need such things. Also unfortunately, some of the later plot strands go much too far melodramatically (you won’t know whether to laugh or turn it off when someone gets strangled by their kitchen sink disposal.)

The best parts of OB (all Maslany) are so good that you ache for how much better it could be. I don’t think the show will get there, given previews for the second season. Having been burned by Homeland and GoT, and with so many other options, I doubt I’ll be watching. I can’t recommend the show, but keep an eye on Tatiana Maslany. She’s dynamite.