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JUL
25
9 MOS

BBC America on the Rise With 'Orphan Black,' Standout Dramas

Coming out of nowhere with star Tatiana Maslany, the cable channel looks to continue building up its roster and getting noticed beyond "Doctor Who."

Tatiana Maslany Next Big Thing Horizontal - H 2013
Amanda Friedman
Tatiana Maslany during her THR photo shoot.

It must have been quite a shock to hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of people (and at least a handful of famous actresses) to wake up to the news on Emmy nomination morning that voters had snubbed Tatiana Maslany and Orphan Black.

Who? What?

But across the interwebs it was plain to see. Critics had embraced the somewhat obscure freshman season of Orphan Black -- a show about identical orphans across the world -- but, more than the show itself, had rallied behind its amazing star, Maslany, who plays numerous roles as clone variations of the same person (or at least that person's DNA).

Often critics are the first to champion low-profile but high-quality shows on channels viewers struggle to find or identify with. In the exploding world of scripted program across countless channels, this can be a valuable consumer service -- not to mention giving a much needed boost to the host channel, in this instance BBC America. 

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Yet what happened with Maslany was unlike most chatter about dark horse Emmy candidates. The drumbeat was ceaseless (as was that from rabid fans of the show) because Maslany was so off-the-charts incredible. She gave, in my view, the best performance by an actress on television last season. That's on any show, not just the best among a group of dark horse candidates.

Was it a real long shot that Emmy voters would nominate her? Of course. Maslany was virtually unheard of. Orphan Black was a genre show -- ooooh, clones, from the same channel that airs that nerdy, long-lasting Doctor Who and lots of other "sci-fi" shows. So sure, it was doomed. Hell, BBC America was running it on Saturday nights, for God's sake.

All true, but that didn't make her jaw-dropping versatility any less great. And so Maslany, and to a lesser extent Orphan Black, were name-dropped extensively as disappointing snubs. No word of what, say, Keri Russell or Julianna Margulies might have thought had they read critics outraged about this snubbed actress -- wait, who? But now she's becoming more famous by the day -- pals with best actress nominee Kerry Washington and with actor and comedian Patton Oswalt among her admirers.

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This is all fantastic news for BBC America, which has been a player in the scripted department for years but has seen the quality of its shows rise (plus its Copper and Orphan Black have the BBC America stamp, not just the BBC stamp). As the channel begins increasing its home-grown content, it benefits greatly from the U.K. churning out a number of acclaimed series (plus the Hall of Fame fan favorite Doctor Who, which is celebrating its upcoming 50th season) -- and a BBC movie panel at TCA all about the making of the first season of An Adventure in Space and Time.

At TCA, much of the currency is in buzz. During this opening three days of gratuitous cable programming, one of the shows getting the most buzz is Broadchurch, the eight-part crime story that thrilled critics and audiences in England and has generated a similar story among critics at TCA: They pop in the DVD for an episode or two and end up watching all eight. You'd be surprised how often that has come up -- a great sign for BBC America as the show debuts on Aug. 7 at 10 p.m.

On Thursday, the channel kicked off its TCA panel with Doctor Who, followed by An Adventure in Space and Time, the new loosely-based-on-Greek-mythology series Atlantis and Broadchurch. The channel then stepped up with a high-profile party for critics at SoHo House -- perhaps another sign of its emergence.

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Entirely unintended, the love for Broadchurch, which centers on the gut-wrenching murder of an 11-year-old boy, the hunt for his killer and the fallout on his family, often comes at the expense of AMC's The Killing, which took a critical beating for drawing out -- over two seasons -- the same kind of story, enraging fans and critics. Hey, even unexpected awareness-raising over a rival helps (AMC presents at TCA on Friday).

Touting its "Dramaville" franchise ("the home for groundbreaking British drama" is the tagline), BBC America is definitely rising. Luther, Being Human, Orphan Black, Copper and others have made it a strong player. No doubt Broadchurch will help. And by this time next year -- or maybe even in six months -- Maslany is likely to be a household name, and Orphan Black will have found a new legion of fans playing catch up.

An impressive little run for BBC America.

E-mail: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine