Sunday, 10 April 2016


One of the best current TV series, Orphan Black is about to begin a much anticipated fourth year.

Sisters doing it for themselves. (Image copyright: BBC America)

It’s an enthralling genre chameleon of a series. A BBC/Canadian co-production, Orphan Black has been running since 2013 but I’ve just got caught up with it on the eve of its fourth season, which starts next week. It’s built around the impressive acting abilities of Tatiana Maslany, who plays a variety of clones. The story engine is Sarah Manning, a punky con woman, while Tatiana’s other main characters are Cosima, a dreadlocked science student; Alison, a repressed suburban mum; Helena, a brainwashed killer and Rachel, a ‘pro-clone’ who’s also a corporate boss.

From the start, Sarah and her foster brother Felix Dawkins (Jordan Gavaris, looking like Anthony Valentine playing Marc Almond) are charismatic and appealing, and part of that appeal is that they’re not very nice people. Sarah uses sex when fleecing her targets, while Felix, or ‘Fe’, is a rent boy who’s not above lying, spiking drinks and robbing either. The change is a slow one: well into the first series, Sarah and Felix are thinking of absconding with the $75,000 they steal from a dead cop, Beth, the first of her clones Sarah discovers.

The reason they don’t is because Sarah has a dawning sense of responsibility when she discovers that someone’s is killing off her clone sisters; impersonating Beth puts her in the ideal position to help. This is the theme at the heart of Orphan Black: commitment to family, whether biological or otherwise – Felix and Sarah may be adopted, but when the chips are down they stand by each other, largely because she has her own daughter, Kira (cute Skyler Wexler). In Series 2, this theme gets really twisted with the addition of a religious cult ‘family’, whose leader punishes his daughter by sewing her lips together and locking her in solitary confinement. All for her own good, of course.

It’s fascinating watching how the clones develop. To begin with, ‘soccer mom’ Alison Hendrix’s strand of Orphan Black looks like a dig at the aspirations of suburbia. Uptight and paranoid, she’s popping (illegal) pills, hitting the bottle and her marriage to Donnie (the wonderful Kristian Brunn) is in trouble. As the series progresses, not only do Alison’s appearances become highlights – particularly in the way she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Felix: when he comes to baby sit, he gets her kids cross-dressing – but in the way she becomes a mother-figure to all her sisters. The relationship between the clones works the other way too, as Alison moves on to manslaughter, dealing drugs and hiding corpses.

Even more of a revelation is Helena, the indoctrinated Ukranian trained to kill off her clone ‘abominations’ by Prolethians, religious fanatics. Starting out as the villainess of the piece, she evolves into a tragic figure as her background of abuse and loneliness is revealed. Helena’s lack of social skills also makes her unexpectedly and enjoyably funny, particularly when she says in all seriousness she’s ‘very good with children.’ However, this volatile infant woman is never completely de-fanged: just when you’re getting comfortable with Helena, the writers deliver a sequence when she takes gruesome revenge on the man who artificially inseminated her. The unpredictability of the characters is part of the reason you keep coming back.

Jordan Gavaris: Valentine playing Almond.
(Image copyright: BBC America)
The collisions of genre, roughly represented by each clone – domestic black comedy, police procedural, conspiracy, scientific politicking, serial killer thriller – is also one of the joys of Orphan Black. When the genres converge, you’re seeing the series at its best. In episode 6 of the first series, Alison drinks one glass of wine too many at her house party and Sarah has to impersonate her. At the same time, her criminal ex-boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando, great) turns up thinking she’s running a new scam. He gets locked in the garage by Paul (Dylan Bruce, chiselled), a deep cover government agent who staples Vic’s hand to a chair with a nail gun. Meanwhile, Felix has put on a sweater and is vamping it up as the gay barman, which makes the suburbanites think they’re living on the edge. It’s priceless, incredibly clever black farce and this approach continues from series to series, through Alison’s spell in rehab and election campaign as her local school’s trustee.  

With the latter, the series takes a dip into Breaking Bad territory when Alison decides to take over her drug supplier’s business to augment the family coffers. Just as you’re getting annoyed with the series for lapsing and ripping something off so obviously, the writers make Donnie say the couple are hiding their supplies in a storage locker ‘like on Breaking Bad.’ It’s hard to argue with a series that openly owns up to its sources, and the same goes for references to Dexter, Frankenstein and The Island of Dr Moreau (with the exception, oddly, of Blade Runner). Then again, Orphan Black doesn’t spoon-feed the audience with its references to Graeco-Roman mythology, Leda and Castor. You either get them or you have to look them up.

When the conspiracy thriller becomes the dominant genre over Series 2 and 3, you do worry that with all the shifting of allegiances, the story is going to congeal to a halt. Compared to the brisk, edgy pace of the early episodes, later on there are a lot scenes of people standing around speculating about what’s going on. That’s a sure sign that the on-going story is getting a bit unwieldy, so it’ll be interesting to see how Series 4 develops. Orphan Black is one of those series where the main cast are so good that if one week’s storyline is a bit duff, there are always compensations in the performances. With his bitchy asides, Jordan Gavaris steals every scene he’s in – his English accent is the best I’ve heard a North American actor do, even with the occasional, wide-of-the-mark turn of phrase like ‘Well, aren’t you an odd duck.’ You wot, mate?

It goes without saying that Tatiana Maslany is superb. In a fascinating online interview, her dialogue coach explained that for each clone, they started with the accent or speech syntax and built the character up from there. It’s a straightforward but brilliant way of working, as Alison’s constrained, prim way of speaking is extended into precise but tense body language. The uneducated, but not stupid, Helena holds herself self-consciously, reflecting her limited English, but she can unexpectedly flare into violence or life-affirming glee, memorably so when she dances with all her sisters at the end of Series 2 (and just how did they do that?). Sarah and Cosima are less showy roles as they carry more of the story, but Maslany has a remarkable way of apparently, and subtly, changing the shape of her face to reinforce the idea you’re looking at separate people. When the sisters share a scene together, you really think you’re looking at different actresses.

Here’s hoping Series 4 maintains the high standard. We’ll find out next Thursday.

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