Get Onboard: Orphan Black

[Blogged by Mike Marinaro]

[Blog Post]

“No! There’s only one of me.” – Sarah

Have you heard about Orphan Black yet? It’s possible you have, because ever since the Season 1 finale aired last year it’s been picking up a lot of steam in the cultural consciousness. From what I can tell, it’s still a bit of an under-the-radar show though. Well, Season 2 premieres tomorrow night so I figured it was time I put a few spoiler-free words together to get anyone who’s not onboard with the show yet to climb on this train.

So, what is Orphan Black? Well, without spoiling anything from the first few episodes it’s a wee bit difficult to answer that entirely, but I’ll do my best! Orphan Black is many things, which is what makes it such a fun show. It’s a thriller; it’s a mystery; it’s a dark comedy; it’s horror; it’s a character drama. And more. Yes, it’s all of these things, sometimes all in the same episode!

Just how does it accomplish all of this? Well, by excelling at just about everything I like to see in a television drama. Let’s start with the writing. Season 1’s serialized plot is consistently riveting and well-paced. The pilot, “Natural Selection”, is a great example of the show at its most frenetic and thrilling, opening with an incredible hook and then leaving the lead character Sarah (pictured above) in absolute chaos, confusion, danger, and mystery. There is genuine tension throughout the season as several plot threads cleverly twist and turn. By the end of the season, some threads offer a nice payoff while others effortlessly head in a new direction.

While the mythology and plot of the show is certainly propulsive and interesting most of the time, albeit not without a few minor flaws, those elements prove to only be at the surface of what makes it — thus far — great. Looking deeper reveals some very palpable themes that resonate on both a personal and a social level. Two of the major topics on Orphan Black‘s mind are the dangers of unchecked extremism and the nature of identity. The former is represented in a battle between amoral science and fanatical religion, while the latter is the very personal impact on the individuals caught in the middle and the practical realities posed by the nature vs nurture debate. The show also touches on the boundaries of property and ownership, both internally and externally.

That’s great and all, but the themes wouldn’t have any impact if they didn’t relate to or affect characters that were worthy of our attention. Fortunately, Orphan Black excels at character development! Most of the central characters in the season experience genuine growth, none more than lead character Sarah, who begins the series a selfish individual but gradually matures after having her entire life — rough though it was — thrown off course. Most of the characters have a colorful personality accompanied with a defined arc that is believable, emotional, and entertaining. I’d argue that there is only one character — Paul — that comes across a bit flat, which might be due to the lone poor actor in the bunch.

Speaking of acting, Paul aside, it’s sublime! The star of the show is Tatiana Maslany, an incredibly gifted actor that demands attention when on screen. This girl can pull off all the genres the show throws at her, whether drama, action, comedy, or whatever. As revealed by the opening scene of the pilot, she is also tasked with portraying multiple characters on screen at the same time — think Willow and Vampire Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Doppelgangland”)… then multiply by ten. Thanks to Maslany’s ability there’s never a point where it becomes noticeable that you’re watching entirely different characters that share the same actor, which is unreal. I’d be willing to bank a recommendation of this season solely on Maslany’s performance — it’s that good and that original.

If you’re still not quite convinced, there’s one more notable reason to get onboard Orphan Black: sensational directing. Orphan Black handles tone and atmosphere incredibly well, a lot of which comes from the people behind the camera. There are some bone-chilling creepy moments in the first season that are aided by great lighting, powerful music cues, and a particularly clever use of camera focusing to help create an emotional intimacy with the characters that otherwise might not be there.

Take the opening scene of the series, for example. Sarah witnesses a shocking event at a train station, but rather than just watch Maslany do her thing, the camera starts tripping out by warping the focus of everything around Sarah, leaving only her in focus. This creates the illusion of a rapidly increasing heartbeat thrusting Sarah’s entire body forward and backward ever so slightly in frame, which connects us to the character’s raw emotion in a way that I’ve never quite seen done before. The camerawork in the show is generally stellar, not to mention original — I love it! Take note of how the camera plays with focus throughout the season, because there are subtle differences in technique depending on the characters involved in a particular scene.

The pilot itself will be enough to get most hooked, but I can assure you any lingering concerns that the show will settle into a status quo or turn into a procedural are quickly rectified by Episode 4: “Effects of External Conditions”. This is a favorite of mine in this regard — one of the best in the season — where characters are fleshed out, emotions peak, and the plot gets spun off in a direction you probably didn’t expect so soon. The pilot is quite good on its own though. Be sure to pay close attention to everything before the opening credits, because there’s a pile of subtle details packed into it that provide a ton of insight into who Sarah is, what her arc is about, and the journey she is about to embark on.

So there you have it! That’s my pitch to get onboard the Orphan Black train. (I’d recommend against jumping in front of it though!) It is my hope that the show can maintain this level of excitement and craftsmanship for seasons to come, but only time will tell. All I can say for certain is that Season 1 is one of the most confident, entertaining, and inventive inaugural seasons of a show that I’ve ever seen. It has the Critically Touched stamp of approval and my personal recommendation to boot!

Season 2 of Orphan Black can be seen on BBC America, Saturdays at 9pm.

10 thoughts on “Get Onboard: Orphan Black”

  1. [Note: Iguana-on-a-stick posted this comment on April 19, 2014.]

    Great idea to post this article, Mike. Makes me want to re-watch the series immediately.

    Which might not be a bad idea in any case, what with the second season rolling around.

    Everybody else who might read this: listen to the man. This show is the real deal.


  2. [Note: Freudian Vampire posted this comment on April 19, 2014.]

    Great post, Mike! It makes me sad to think that I can’t re-watch the first season and don’t know when I’ll have access to the second, but I hope this inspires more people to give this one a chance.

    Maslany’s ability to make you forget you’re watching entirely different characters is unreal

    I think the phrasing here might be a little off, though. ‘Forget you’re watching different characters’ implies that her performances aren’t distinct enough to make you believe they’re different people. Something along the lines of ‘forget you’re watching the same actress’ might be better. That could just be my brain having a meltdown, though.


  3. [Note: MikeJer posted this comment on April 19, 2014.]

    I updated it a bit: “Thanks to Maslany’s ability there’s never a point where it becomes noticeable that you’re watching entirely different characters that share the same actor, which is unreal.”


  4. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on April 19, 2014.]

    Great little post here, Mike! As I’m writing this, the Season Two premiere is airing, but I’ve set my DVR. Can’t wait to see how the show picks up!

    I’m thinking about doing a “Get Onboard” (love that title) article myself, probably on Hannibal. If there’s any series I’ve seen that can give Orphan Black a run for the title of “Best Show Currently On the Air”, that would be it.

    And yes, to all who haven’t seen Orphan Black, I’ll also give it my high recommendation.


  5. [Note: MikeJer posted this comment on April 19, 2014.]

    I’m happy to report that the Season 2 premiere was [i]fantastic[/i]! It picks up right where Season 1 leaves us and doesn’t let up for a second.


  6. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on May 10, 2014.]

    “That’s my pitch to get onboard the Orphan Black train. (I’d recommend against jumping in front of it though!)”

    Oh you.


  7. [Note: Stewball posted this comment on June 6, 2014.]

    Just wanted to thank you for this blog post. I had not previously heard of “Orphan Black”. Now I can’t wait until Season 2 becomes available for streaming.


  8. [Note: buffyholic posted this comment on October 2, 2014.]

    I´m a little late but nice article, mike.

    I´m going to start watching it now, by the way. Like I said, I´m almost always a bit late because almost everyone has seen this show, I bet, but I´m gonna watch it only now.

    I´ll let you know if I like it, mike.


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