|Tatiana Maslany stars in Orphan Black, on BBC America and Space|
If you love TV and live in Toronto (as I do), watching American television can often be a frustrating experience. As thrilled as I am that Toronto has established itself as the go-to site for American-produced film and TV, it is often impossible to watch an episode of a favourite series without feeling that the city is being slighted, an “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” feeling which gets called up whenever a signature Toronto location is passed off as a generic street in “Pick Your City”, USA. – to single out just one recurring example, see the numerous uses of Daniel Libeskind’s striking crystalline extension to the Royal Ontario Museum in the background of scenes set in Chicago or DC. It is therefore especially gratifying when those norms are shaken up.
This past Sunday, Orphan Black aired its first episode, and on April 21, Showcase’s hit time-travel drama Continuum premieres its second season on Canadian airwaves; both shows are not only produced and filmed in Canada, but (with an appalling deficiency of that renowned Canadian humility) are also set here as well.
With Fringe, Alphas, and Eureka’s recent departures, there are barely any original science fiction series on the U.S. networks – TNT’s Falling Skies and SyFy’s always delightful Warehouse 13 are the only current exceptions. (There is, interestingly, no immediate shortage of fantasy stories: Grimm, Games of Thrones, Supernatural, True Blood and any of that long and growing list of vampire and werewolf shows are in constant rotation.) I won’t speculate on the reasons for the lack of success U.S. networks have had with science fiction shows in the last few years, even following up on the popular and critical successes of Battlestar Galactica and Lost. Whatever the causes, American viewers and cable networks have had to look beyond their borders to find new science fiction storytelling: across the pond to the UK (Doctor Who, Misfits, and the recent Utopia) and, perhaps most surprisingly, north to Canada. With two ambitious and entertaining series, Continuum and now the extremely promising Orphan Black, we are perhaps entering a minor golden age of Canadian science fiction programming.
|Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black|
Still, some American critics seem to be stubbornly confused by the location of the show, even hallucinating NYPD logos in the place of the variation of the Toronto Police symbol clearly deliberately chosen by the show’s set designers. (The round logo in a police station is identical to TPS’, minus the word “Toronto” at the top, and I’m honestly not sure how it could be mistaken for the triangular NYPD one.) Admittedly, Orphan Black’s opening scene – set in a fictional Huxley Station (a clever nod to Aldous Huxley and his Brave New World), lays the groundwork for this confusion, but it is difficult to miss the colourful Canadian money, the plane tickets explicitly landing in Toronto’s Pearson Airport, birth certificates naming Toronto suburbs, and Ontario license plates lining the street.
The ten-episode first season promises to deliver an extremely thick plot. Sarah Hawking (Maslany) is a streetwise survivor who grew up in an English orphanage and foster care before moving with her foster mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy, The Tudors and more recently Downton Abbey) and Felix (Gavaris), her foster brother, to Toronto as a young teen. Returning to Toronto after nearly a year’s absence, she is an inadvertent witness to the suicide of Beth Childs (also Maslany), a woman who bears a remarkable resemblance to Sarah herself. A lifelong outsider who has learned that the only way to get what she needs is to take it, Sarah walks away with the Beth’s purse – containing the phones, keys, and identification necessary for taking over the dead woman’s identity. Never intending to do more than steal enough resources to run away with her young daughter and leave her life in the city behind, Sarah quickly finds herself immersed in mysteries beyond her understanding: most prominently, the question of why she and Beth seem to be identical physical matches for one another. Beth herself is a police detective with a suspicious amount of unexplained cash in the bank, caught up in a departmental inquiry for a questionable line-of-duty shooting of an unarmed civilian. By the end of the pilot episode, Sarah is contacted by the German-born Katya (also Maslany), who was previously in contact with Beth: Katya too looks shockingly, in fact identically, like both Sarah and Beth.
|Jordan Gavaris in Orphan Black|
Though the plot of Orphan Black promises to be a labyrinthine doozy, it is clear from the pilot that character will also be at the forefront, and perhaps even the very idea of character. Sarah demonstrates herself to be a survivor and a doer more than a thinker, more invested in the short term and inclined to making choices without attending to the longer-term consequences of her actions. We meet her on the run from the abusive, sleazebag, drug-dealing boyfriend who she recently ran out on – a brick of his cocaine in hand – after hitting him with an ashtray. Taking over the life of her lookalike, Beth, is itself a spur of the moment decision, and you can actually see her making decision after decision in the show’s first hour, plainly without thinking much beyond the next move or two.
Sarah is an appealing young lead – especially in her interactions with Felix, who is her only real confidant and friend. Gavaris’ Felix brings a lightness to the sometimes melodramatic proceedings (“It’s you, with a nice haircut,” Felix remarks when Sarah first shows him a photo of Beth.), and his consistent enthusiasm and affection for Sarah helps keep her someone you can root for despite the poor decisions she keeps making. But the season will rise and fall on how compelling, and distinct, Maslany can make the other versions of herself. (Of the nine main characters listed on the show’s website, four are played by Tatiana Maslany – with no doubt more on the way as the show progresses.) In the alternative dimension storyline of Fringe’s middle seasons, Fringe explored questions of the sources of character and personal identity – over the course of its run viewers met viewers as many as five variations of Walter Bishop (each portrayed by the incomparable John Noble) and at least three importantly distinct versions of Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv). Torv’s ability to differentiate each Olivia from the other, in ways more profound and subtle than hair length and colour (via slight mannerisms, posture, or at times simply a timely wry smile), was a large part of what kept Fringe’s storylines so compelling, despite a potentially confusing and ever-shifting narrative.
|Tatiana Maslany (left) and Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black|
After years of directing episodes of other writers’ scripts (from Xena: Warrior Princess to Rookie Blue), John Fawcett is finally controlling his own material. He and Manson co-write every episode of the show’s first season, with Fawcett himself directing the first two hours. Fawcett has already proven with Ginger Snaps (2000) that he can mine a story for its dark and fleshy core – drawing out that part of speculative storytelling that shifts from metaphor or allegory into something true and deeply human. In this era of romanticized teen vampires and werewolves, the werewolf story Fawcett tells in Ginger Snaps is more impressive than ever. At the time that I first saw Ginger Snaps, only Joss Whedon had achieved anything comparable, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer: telling stories of female adolescence, pain, power, and individual strength through the lenses of fantasy.
From a plot description of Orphan Black, you may be hard-pressed to distinguish it from last season’s CW’s now-cancelled Ringer (starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, who takes over her twin sister’s life after an apparent suicide). I tried, and failed, to stay engaged by Ringer, with its manufactured intrigue and soap-opera-y plots – but already in this first hour, Orphan Black points in a number of new directions: a larger and more complicated cast of characters, a dark sense of humour, and the feeling that the show will be taking its universe seriously. The simple fact of a near-unlimited number of genetic doubles out there in the world leaves the story open in potentially remarkable ways. The intersecting lives of different women – all genetically identical, but with wildly diverse upbringings – can compel Sarah, and viewers, to call into question much that we, out of existential necessity, often take for granted: the role that our personal histories play not only in what we may believe, but who we essentially are.
Orphan Black airs Saturdays at 9pm ET on Space and BBC America. Its second episode airs on April 6.
– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.