In the 2012-2013 television season, a little-buzzed-about show made its series premiere on BBC America, on the heels of science fiction juggernaut Doctor Who. That show was Orphan Black, and over the course of its first ten episodes, it firmly formed its own identity, emerging from the shadows of all the other series in its genre. The show’s second season has further solidified its status as an underrated gem, both critically and commercially, as it has used strong performances and an attention to detail to stake its place amongst the top tier of television.
The writing and characterisation are particularly strong aspects of the show. While Tatiana Maslany’s seemingly effortless multiple performances have been a large part of making each of her characters unique, the show has also done its fair share in giving every clone a distinct identity. With individual storylines that weave in and out of each other, each main character has had ample time dedicated to their exploration. This not only includes how they relate to each other and the knowledge of their clone status, but also what each of their lives looks like outside of these circumstances. The end result has been a slew of well-developed main characters each with distinct personalities, whose motivations and actions in the face of numerous adversities are clearly understandable. In particular, Helena has emerged as one of the most fascinating characters on television, truly terrifying at times yet undeniably tragic as well, striking a balance that’s rarely done so effectively.
The show has also used the differences in characters as a launching pad to explore genres. Following each clone individually has allowed the show to branch off into telling a survival tale, a medical drama, a corporate power struggle, and a suburban dramedy over the course of the series’ run. This has also allowed the writers to explore relationships of several different stripes, including a failing marriage, friendships that are both growing and disintegrating, romantic entanglements of various sorts, and familial bonds. Despite juggling so many balls in the air, none of these stories ever feel tonally disconnected from each other, and everything transitions smoothly and works well in the larger context of the story being told.
This attention to detail has further extended to the two key driving forces of the show’s plot as well. Over the course of the show’s two seasons, the writers have gradually explored both the Proletheans and Neolutionists, the two groups who are after the clones. Each group’s methods and motivations have been well drawn, with fascinating clashes of ideology and internal dissent in both organisations. Supporting characters such as Art and Felix have also benefited from this, as they have come into their own independent of the larger plot, existing as individual characters rather than sources of conflict or exposition.
Of course, no mention of the excellent aspects of the show would be complete without a discussion of the show’s lynchpin, the aforementioned Tatiana Maslany. Week in, week out, Maslany is one of the best performers on television, adding individual shades of nuance to multiple roles seemingly effortlessly. Watching the show, it’s easy to forget that a single actress is performing most of these roles, whether a Ukrainian serial killer or a housewife performing the lead in a musical. Her talent is especially apparent in the scenes where two of Maslany’s characters interact with each other, or when one character is called upon to pose as or imitate another of her numerous doppelgangers, and neither the show nor the performances ever draw attention to themselves. The supporting performers are also worth watching in their own right, as the likes of Maria Doyle Kennedy, Matt Frewer, Jordan Gavaris, and Kevin Hanchard all provide excellent turns in every episode. A perfect example of the strength of the supporting cast is Inga Cadrenal, whose Detective DeAngelis would’ve run a strong risk of becoming a cliché or forgettable character in the hands of a lesser performer.
While these aspects are the highlights of Orphan Black, they are by no means its only strong suits. The show also does a great job of exploring the ramifications of its premise; the fact that clones exist in this universe is not something the show glosses over or uses as a setup for another plot point. Instead, it shows a range of reactions to the idea, from disbelief to scientific curiosity, from both the clones themselves and society at large. Keeping the stakes small and character driven has worked out greatly in the show’s favour, and this has not diminished the impact or effect of said stakes. All told, Orphan Black is one of the best shows currently airing, and it’s one that more people should be watching.
– Deepayan Sengupta