The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 13, 2013

Joe Hadsall: 'Orphan Black' features great story, performance

By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor

JOPLIN, Mo. — I debated with myself for a long time whether I should write this, but I think it's safe: "Orphan Black" is about clones.

The central story arc of one of the most brilliant shows to hit TV was revealed early in its third episode. Jokes about "Clone Club" and "Attack of the Clones" are running rampant in media coverage of the show, so there's no point in holding that tidbit back, or treating this column with a spoiler alert warning.

Come to think of it, I knew about it before I started watching, and knowing that didn't affect my appreciation a single bit. In fact, this is one of the most ingenious sci-fi conspiracy shows I've ever watched.

"Orphan Black" revolves around Sarah, a streetwise, young orphan on her way back to town in order to reunite with her daughter. While at a subway, she spots an agitated, pacing woman. As Sarah moves closer, the woman removes her heels, takes off her jacket and looks back at Sarah, a tear streaming down her cheek.

The woman -- who looks exactly like Sarah -- then jumps in front of an oncoming train.

Thus ends Sarah's initiation into Clone Club. With the intent of cleaning out the dead woman's savings and starting a new life for herself and her daughter, Sarah dives unknowingly into a complicated mystery involving several more of her exact twins.

There's a good crew of supporting characters, including Sarah's foster brother, Felix, Paul (the boyfriend of Beth, the woman who killed herself) and Mrs. S, Sarah's foster mother who now has custody of her daughter.

But the stars are the characters played by Tatiana Maslany.

The show's official "About the Characters" page on  BBCAmerica.com is hilarious -- the first six characters are all clones, played by Maslany. The clones hail from around the world, including Alison the American soccer mom, Helena the Russian murderer, Katja the nervous German and Sarah, who is British. And as the story progresses, there may be more.

But Maslany handles them all expertly. The show is a testament to her acting skills and acumen with accents. In the first episode, she plays a Brit, an American and a Brit trying to speak like an American. In further episodes, she plays Sarah learning to impersonate Alison and Alison learning to impersonate Sarah.

It sounds dizzying trying to explain it. But the story flows realistically -- as realistic as clones can be, anyway. Each character she plays seems to come to her naturally and has so much reliability.

As much as that's a tribute to Maslany, it's also a tribute to creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, who write intricate scenes with stellar special effects that are never obvious.

Think about other scenes that feature the same actor basically talking to themselves. The scenes are staged awkwardly or with shaky FX that reveal the trick.

But each scene with Maslany's characters is silky smooth. Scenes with three clones play out seamlessly and realistically -- it's easy to forget that all the characters are played by the same woman.

Watching "Orphan Black" is somewhat tricky around Joplin: BBC America isn't offered by Cable One (DirecTV and Dish offer the network, however), so watching it requires a purchase from iTunes or Amazon.

But it is so worth the effort. "Orphan Black" is the most creative, compelling shows I've found in years. The first season is 10 episodes long, and it has been signed for a second season, so I'm looking forward to a long, happy membership in Clone Club.