When recounting to a friend the vast and enchanting vista that houses RockNess, the ‘most beautiful festival in the world’, I realised I could only get so far in convincing her of its delights. She had to see it to believe it. ‘Just trust me, it will click when you see it, you will cry on the last night like I did’ (I was unfathomably high and have a history of mental health problems). I find the same sort of uneasy bargaining to be true of Orphan Black, a largely unknown show from Canada (the humanity!) that has been co-produced by BBC America (stop trying) and Space (stop). I mean, the credentials don’t exactly inspire you to adopt it and love it as your own.
The show primarily follows Sarah Manning, a low-level conwoman returning home to reclaim the daughter she abandoned with her former foster mother. At a station she shares a brief encounter with a crying woman – a woman who looks exactly like her – who throws herself in front of an oncoming train. Sarah – dumbstruck, horrified, and sensing an opportunity – steals the woman’s bag and assumes her identity. And oh, what japes ensue.
I know, it sounds like Ringer, a show that nobody watched and hammered home the disquieting reality that Buffy can’t actually act, but Orphan Black is so very different. This opening moment transpires to be a mere catalyst in an unravelling mystery about murderous cabals, government cover-ups and scientific conspiracy. As the show accelerates, at a speed in which necks would surely break, you forget that Sarah assuming her dead double’s identity was what set this gorgeous beast in motion. Towards the season’s end, as battle lines are drawn and various sides galvanise themselves for an almighty showdown, this opening event seems like a distant memory, one relegated to fictive seasons past. This is no mean feat for a short, ten-episode run of a fledgling show.
You may still be unconvinced. Identity swap, you’ve seen it before. Perhaps the xenophobe in you is deterred by its Canadian origins. But you have to trust me on Orphan Black. By the time you get to the third episode, it won’t just click, it will have paid off massively.
And here’s why: Tatiana Maslany.
To say that lead actress Maslany is a revelation would be a tired old whore of a platitude. To call her performance game-changing would be trite (and we must retire the term ‘game-changing’). She is awesome, in that her performance literally inspires awe. Part, if not the majority, of the boundless appeal of the show is very, very heavily entrenched in Maslany’s performance, which cannot entirely be described in full because it would spoil the sheer joy and spectacle of it (along with some major twists). But believe me – Maslany displays a range so truly limitless that her peers really ought to be banging at her door and begging for her to impart some of her raw wisdom.
Aware that I am straying dangerously into the territory of spoilers, Maslany plays more than one* pivotal role in the show. It is breathtaking to behold. Her command of acting should not be underestimated. Her mastery of accents, mannerisms, the gait in which she imbues certain characters – it blows many who have attempted similar right out of the park. By the time of the third episode, and certainly, increasingly during the remainder of the season, Maslany is pulling off such technical feats of acting that it is staggering to consider that you had no idea who she was before this. Rightfully, Maslany has slowly begun to receive critical acclaim. She recently beat out performance powerhouse Clare Danes to win the Critics’ Choice award, and, resultantly, many are calling for an overhaul of the elitist Emmy nomination procedure in order to incorporate her, an otherwise unknown actress from a largely unwatched, low-budget affair that hails from north of the border.
Equally deserving of praise is Jordan Gavaris, who plays Sarah’s gay foster brother, Felix. His performance is a credit to both the actor and the head writer, Graeme Manson, who manage to achieve the unthinkable by crafting a main character who is gay and who could feasibly exist in the real world. He isn’t ‘Hey! I’m just an average guy! I like beer, football, I’m a little overweight and I just happen to be gay! Isn’t that remarkable in its unremarkability!’ (Happy Endings, your cards are marked), and he certainly isn’t part of the factory line of camp-and-cutting TV queens who have had their sex drives surgically removed (The New Normal). He sleeps around. He takes drugs. He’s melodramatic, blithely caustic and oftentimes, ironically, the sardonic voice of reason. This sounds like a stereotype in itself, but watch him – he is so easily someone you actually know. He grounds the inherent absurdity of the show in comic reality, and this is one of Orphan Black’s most appealing qualities – characters, particularly Sarah and Felix, react to increasing danger and high drama the way ordinary people would, which brings an addictive level of self-aware humour to the table.
Check it out. The twists are plentiful. It moves at a brisk pace. It is serialised (there are no monsters-of-the-week here), and it provides answers to the mysteries it poses in a fair, even and satisfying manner – something that should not be overlooked in a post-Lost world. It is frequently, and wonderfully, surprising. Once you start, I guarantee you will want to keep going. And most importantly – Tatiana. Get back to me once you’ve seen what she can do. You have to see it to believe it.
*or two, or three, or four…