Orphan Black: TV Review

BBC America
"Orphan Black"
A thoroughly impressive, wildly entertaining hour.

BBC America's second original series stars Tatiana Maslany as a woman who uncovers a huge secret about her life.

We are in that period of television where the riches are so immense and so deep and varied that you can’t possibly keep reminding yourself how lucky you are. Let’s face it, you’re spoiled.

There are the obvious top-tier series such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, but Justified and Boardwalk Empire are great too, and The Walking Dead went from scary and unique to scary and brilliant. The list goes on and on. Even when we get something like Vikings on History -- which is entertaining and self-aware enough to know that it’s not trying to be Shakespeare, much less Game of Thrones -- you can’t help but add it to your list. Same goes for Banshee on Cinemax and Bates Motel on A&E. No matter what your mood is, there’s a show for you. And chances are, that show will be pretty damn good.

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And now we can welcome Orphan Black, the second original series from BBC America (after Copper), and what a thoroughly impressive, wildly entertaining hour it is.

But maybe, in some ways, Orphan Black goes beyond that description. It’s addictive and compelling -- you want the next episode mere seconds after the previous one has ended, which is always a fantastic sign. But even beyond that, there’s little doubt that Orphan Black is more than just a thrill ride or some guilty pleasure. It is, flat out, one of the most intriguingly entertaining new series of the year, and it’s so much more than pure entertainment. For a sci-fi series, there’s some real heft to it.

Orphan Black stars the wonderful Tatiana Maslany as Sarah, whom we first meet asleep on a train coming into the outskirts of New York. She has an English accent. A stranger in our world. Dressed in all black with shorts and stockings, we know Sarah is tough. As she’s arguing on the phone, she watches as some Wall Street-type woman weeps and tries to keep it together. Minutes later, the woman has taken off her shoes and folded her suit jacket neatly and steps in front on an oncoming train. But before she does, she looks to her right and sees Sarah.

They are remarkably similar -- possibly twins.

Desperate for money, Sarah takes the woman’s purse and, upon seeing the driver’s license and pictures, is freaked out by the fact she might have an identical twin she didn’t know about. Sarah’s a hard, adopted kid who grew up fierce on the streets. She’s closes to her adopted brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris), and tells him of the situation. Sarah has a daughter named Kira, who she hasn’t seen in 10 months, having left her with Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy), who was Sarah and Felix’s foster mother. To get the money to have a life for her daughter and Felix, Sarah first tries to sell cocaine but then realizes that the woman who jumped in front of the train, Beth, might have a life that Sarah can occupy.

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This is where Orphan Black gets really good. Beth might have all the things that Sarah doesn’t, but trying to become someone else is both extremely difficult and troublesome to Sarah, especially when she realizes her doppelganger’s life, while so exciting from the outside -- fancy apartment, hunky boyfriend, sweet car -- actually is much more complicated than her own.

You can’t give Maslany enough credit here; she’s fantastic as Sarah, who becomes Beth, then finds the ongoing secret of the series: They’re all clones. Series creators Graeme Manson (Flashpoint), who does the writing, and John Fawcett (Spartacus), who does the directing, have been massaging this Orphan Black storyline for a decade, and you can tell immediately they’ve worked out the angles. This is a series that feels as confident as any you’ll see on TV right now, and it has the added benefit of being a sci-fi show without much heavy sci-fi, broadening its appeal. The story moves quickly, is thrilling at every turn and has surprisingly solid acting on every level.

BBC America still might need to work out some of the kinks in Copper, but it has an excellent and entertaining second scripted entry in Orphan Black.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com