Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Give Tatiana Maslany All of the Awards (Orphan Black)

If you have ever watched a movie about twins, where both twins are played by the same actor, and wondered how they could ever manage those shots where the same actress is playing two different people, then boy have I got a show for you. And also an actress who really, really needs an Emmy.

Orphan Black is the recent BBC cult hit that just finished its first season. It stars Tatiana Maslany, and Tatiana Maslany, as well as Tatiana Maslany, in a fringe science thriller of a show where most of the characters are played by Tatiana Maslany. But I get ahead of myself. What’s all this about anyway?

Well, the show follows Sarah Manning (Maslany), a grifter and former foster child who’s just come back to New York to get her daughter when she sees a woman throw herself in front of the train. Normal, unpleasant city stuff, except for the part where the woman who committed suicide looks exactly like Sarah.

So Sarah starts digging. At first her reasons are relatively selfish – she has a doppleganger who is conveniently dead and just happens to have left her purse on the platform before topping herself. Sarah decides to rip her off, fast before the police ID the body. And then she has a better idea. I mean, they look identical, right? And the dead woman, Beth Childs, had a pretty sweet life. What if Sarah just becomes Beth?

Katje and Sarah (pretending to be Beth)
The story runs from there. It turns out that Beth isn’t the only one who looks just like Sarah. Two days later she meets Katje Obinger, a German rockstar who also dies pretty quickly, but looks identical. Oh, and then she keeps getting mysterious phone calls, there’s a briefcase that must be retrieved, a hitman taking out women who look like Sarah left and right, and the intense problem of what to do with Sarah’s daughter in all of this.

The answer, of course, is clones. That’s not really a spoiler, for the record. The girls are all clones developed by someone for some reason that they don’t actually understand. As the season progresses the mystery only deepens. The women aren’t just left on their own, after all. They’re a biological goldmine, so obviously there are monitors in place to make sure the investment is safe. But we don’t really know who made them, or why.

There are a lot of reasons to love this show, starting with the sheer audaciousness of the premise, but the hands down best reason is pretty simple: Tatiana Maslany just might be the best actress I’ve ever seen. Ever. I feel weird saying that, but it’s true.

Okay, does anyone remember Dollhouse? It was that Joss Whedon show that took a while to get going, but was about people who could be imprinted with an identity, and then have it all wiped away. 

It starred Eliza Dushku, and while the show really did get going around the sixth episode or so, it was widely criticized for one simple reason: you didn’t actually believe that the dolls were becoming other people. The actors weren’t really strong enough for that. And no one held it against them, to be honest. It’s a hard thing to play, and they did the best they could.

Well, Maslany has the same task, and I have to say, she nails it.

The main character of the show is Sarah, but the other clones make substantial appearances as well. Allison and Cosima are the two most frequent contributions, both with their own storylines and scenes. Then there’s Helena, the crazy clone, and Beth, the dead clone, Katje, Rachel, Daniella (we only see photos of some of them), and more. And Maslany plays them all. Except she doesn’t just play them, she inhabits them.

This isn’t like your usual “one actor playing lots of parts” movie. Maslany so inhabits these characters, who are all really well fleshed out and distinct, that she changes the way in which she walks, speaks, holds her jaw, even how she blinks. It’s crazy. They look completely different, except, you know, exactly the same. I literally have no idea how she does it. But I am so glad she does.

This doesn’t mean, though, that Maslany is the only good thing about Orphan Black. The supporting characters, who all have some relationship to the clones, are excellent. 

Sarah’s foster mother and brother get a special shout-out for being such interesting characters and so well played in particular. Felix (Jordan Gavaris), her foster brother, gives their relationship great dimension and depth, all while sauntering through the show like he owns everything and nothing can surprise him. His relationships with the other clones are easily one of the highlights of the season, and he always brings the screen alive. Similarly, Siobhan (Maria Doyle Kennedy) or Mrs. S, their foster mom, brings tense frustration to her every scene, even when she’s being nice.

But the best parts, by far, are when Maslany does a scene with multiple clones talking to each other. Pouring each other wine, fighting, and making fun of each other. Because here’s the absolutely crazy thing: she has chemistry with herself. The characters actually feel like they’re totally interacting because they’re totally interacting. At no point during the scenes do you stop and wonder how they did it. You’re completely wrapped up in the drama of the moment, and only later do you sit back and think, “Wait, huh?”

Allison pretending to be Sarah (with Sarah's daughter)
This, I feel, is the true victory of the show. At no point do you remember that the clones are all played by one person. They are so alive and so realized and so distinct that you sort of forget. You get sucked in. You just accept that the story is a thing and you forget how crazy it actually is. That’s good writing, and that’s hella good acting.

It also warms the cockles of my heart to see a show where the Bechdel Test is reversed. Not only do the women talk to each other all the freaking time on this show, it’s actually pretty freaking rare for the male characters to talk to each other about something other than a clone. Actually, I’m not sure that ever really happens.

Either way, Orphan Black is an amazing show. The season is tight, beautifully written, and so freaking compelling that I watched the whole thing in two days. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Oh, and if any Emmy voters are reading this, do us all a favor and give Tatiana the award. Because seriously. Seriously.



  1. Orphan Black is an awesome show (with the exception of Felix being such a horrendously stereotypical GBF) - and Tatiana Maslany is incredible. Normally saying things like "the best actress ever" would be hyperbole - but in this case? Totally deserved and accurately

    The chemistry between the clones is impossible! IMPOSSIBLE! And when she plays a clone playing her - how hard is that? Not just playing Sarah, but playing Allison playing Sarah... how do you even do that?!

    And it's really well written, has a great supporting cast and awesome world and mystery on mystery. I love this show, it's one of the best out there at the moment

    1. Definitely agreed. And yeah, Felix is a pretty hardcore GBF stereotype, but I liked what they did with Cosima and Delphine. Funny how this is a show that got all the women just right, and let everything else kind of slide.

    2. Reminds me of Switch - another awesome show with awesome female characters including awesome lesbians - and then a really insulting, utterly stereotypical depiction of a gay men. It's a shame, because if everything was as awesome as their depiction of women and the utterly awesome Tatiana Maslany it would be beyond perfect

    3. I've not seen that - was it on BBC as well?

    4. It was on ITV 3: https://www.itv.com/itvplayer/switch

    5. Well, there goes my weekend...

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  2. I haven't seen it - I'll put it on the list. But I have a guess as to how she can do all those characters like that: Method acting, or rather, the lack of it.

    1. I read an interview where she said she has different ipod playlists for each character, but I suspect it's a little more in depth than that.

    2. The closest I've seen to a negative criticism from her portrayal is that she makes the different clones so distinct that the viewer in question has trouble buying the occasions when one of them impersonates another.

      I think it's fair to say that in the entire history of television drama, there's *never* been another show that's depended so completely on one person's talent to carry it as Orphan Black does on Maslany. I've never described the lack of an emmy nomination as a travesty before - pointless, given that more people will always deserve it than there are spots - but this time is my exception.

  3. And it turns out she's not even nominated. Sigh.

  4. Necromancy!

    And finally, she has her Emmy win!