The idea of an actor playing multiple roles in the same television series isn’t any sort of revelation. It’s happened on soap operas for decades. It’s been a staple of recent sci-fi shows like Fringe and Heroes. John Stamos once ventured outside the complex box that was Jesse Katsopolis to play the stunningly different Cousin Stavros in an episode of Full House.
And I’m still not convinced it was Jaleel White alone who was responsible for Steve Urkel, Stephan Urquelle and Myrtle Urkel.
What Tatiana Maslany is doing on BBC America’s Orphan Black, though, is an actual game-changer.
The network TV season is over, Mad Men is winding down and I just started to finally dig into Game of Thrones – at the recommendation of my wife and literally every other person in North America – but Orphan Black is as demanding of your summer attention as any of those other critically claimed series.
Orphan Black is BBC America’s second sole-produced original series after Gangs of New York-knockoff Copper. I’ve yet to see Copper, which got fairly favorable reviews for its first season and is about to kick off No. 2, but BBCA’s No. 2 series is a can’t-miss. And Maslany is the reason why.
The premise for Orphan Black sounded a bit convoluted for something that would be able to be successful in the long term. In the pilot, a troubled woman named Sarah Manning witnesses the suicide of a girl who looks identical to her. She assumes her identity, but quickly finds the shoes she stepped into are part of a far-reaching and complex conspiracy. It turns out Beth Childs, the woman who jumped in front of a train with Manning watching, wasn’t merely a lookalike. As Manning begins to discover later in the pilot and more fully in episodes two and three, she has clones.
[Please, keep rolling your eyes. I’ll wait. Gonna put on a pot of coffee, though.]
Good, you’re back!
In an effort to keep these reviews #spoilerfree, I won’t delve into anything that gives too much away plot-wise. But performance-wise, there’s much to discuss. It starts and ends with Maslany, who plays characters with British, American, German and Ukrainian accents – none of which are the actress’ country of origin. She doesn’t just have to figure out how to create multiple unique characters with very similar looks, though. Maslany often has to act as one clone masquerading as another. While that seems rather elaborate, it’s a device creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett return to often, and it’s something that works extremely well within the organized chaos that the show reins in so well.
The show is filmed in Toronto but it’s very ambiguous as to where the events are actually supposed to be taking place. Sarah gets off a train as another is announced as heading to New York City, and we see NYPD mugs at the police department where two central characters work. But multiple references are made to neighborhoods in Toronto and cars feature Ontario license plates, so I guess Orphan Black can really take place anywhere you want it to take place.
Fitting with its Canadian production, BBC America went for a Canadian cast, and nearly all the main actors have roots north of the border. That might explain why you’ve almost certainly never heard of Maslany, but that’s about to change.
Maslany is just 27 but has 10 years of comedic improv in her background. That experience pays off in a big way in Orphan Black, which features more light moments than you’d expect for a sci-fi series that’s slowing revealing a mystery in what are often very dark ways. While Sarah is the show’s central character, she spends most of her time straddling between that and two other primary clones, and she’s at her best when playing neurotic soccer mom Alison. Alison has a healthy amount of skepticism when she first meets Sarah, but that relationship is one of the show’s bedrocks throughout the first season. Maslany seamlessly weaves between the two – one a con artist and the other a proper suburban housewife – and that’s how Orphan Black really takes off. Despite the obvious physical similarities between the clones – and the makeup department deserves a massive amount of credit for making Maslany appear distinctive enough in each role – you actually forget that one actress is playing so many characters.
“I didn’t know what I was. I was very self-conscious, a fish out of water,” Maslany said of leaving Canada for Los Angeles. “I never felt like myself. If I’d had any calmness about me, I would have talked about films I love and actors I like and not the weather and driving. How do you make an impression in five minutes anyway?”
While that improv background certainly helps, watch two episodes of Orphan Black and try to picture your favorite current or former SNL cast member forming enough unique personas to carry a dramatic series. Kristen Wiig? Maya Rudulph? Ana Gastayer? Didn’t think so. I’m not saying Maslany has the comedic chops some of those ladies had or that the SNL alums had nearly the same desire to transition into drama, but it’s still a hypothetical worth considering.
Maslany is from Saskatchewan and ventured out to LA to try her luck there, but ultimately moved back to Canada. “I didn’t know what I was. I was very self-conscious, a fish out of water. I never felt like myself. If I’d had any calmness about me, I would have talked about films I love and actors I like and not the weather and driving. How do you make an impression in five minutes anyway?” she told NOW Toronto.
She did enough little stuff to get noticed in a variety of Canadian movies and television series, but she might have to give Hollywood another shot soon. On Monday she won the award for best actress in a drama series at the Critics’ Choice Television Awards. (In case you’re concerned those are made-up Canadian awards, the male winner was Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston.) Oh, and she beat Claire Danes, Vera Farmiga, Julianna Margulies, Keri Russell and Elisabeth Moss. Decent company.
There are enough questions answered toward the end of Orphan Black that it could have ended at least somewhat satisfyingly as a 10-episode standalone. But there were also plenty of season-long mysteries that went unsolved, and Maslany’s versatility and some developments in the final two episodes leave lots of potential for future seasons. BBC America announced midway through season one that it would be back in 2014, by which time Maslany could have an Emmy nomination to really give the series a bump to the ratings. HitFix’s outstanding critic Alan Sepinwall isn’t convinced it’ll happen, but neither Maslany nor Orphan Black need awards to justify their place at the table in this golden age of dramatic TV.
The show might even inspire a clone or two.
CHECKING THE SCORE: 4 stars out of 5
Oh, hi. You’re still here and wondering how you can watch Orphan Black since you checked your local listings and don’t get BBC America. Or, even if you do, you noticed it’s not airing the recently concluded season anytime in the foreseeable future for some shortsighted reason. My best bets would be Amazon Instant Video, XBOX Live, Vudu or iTunes, all of which will charge $1.99 or $2.99 (HD) per episode. If you don’t feel like doing that, the DVD and Blu-Ray versions of the first season come out July 16 and likely will be available at your local library or Blockbuster Video if that was still an actual place. If you can’t wait, give your cable or satellite system’s On-Demand feature a shot – DirecTV’s is sadly less useful than a turtle with a Ferrari – or there are many less legal means through which you might be able to find it.
Not that that’s encouraged. Forget it, this never happened.