Storytellers are ever on a quest for two things: A great opening and an even better hook. So, as a writer, I had no choice but to sit back and admire the hell out of John Fawcett and Graeme Manson’s new BBC America show Orphan Black, which debuted Saturday night. Shit, even the name is great, and I have no idea what it means.
The great opening takes place on a train platform, where petty crook/scam artist Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) is bitching into a telephone at someone. She slowly becomes aware of another figure on the platform… a crying woman. Sarah terminates the call and approaches the woman, presumably to ask if she’s OK. The woman removes her shoes, places her purse on the ground, then turns toward Sarah. Their eyes meet. Sarah’s jaw drops. They are literally identical to each other. Then the woman leaps in front of a passing train and is blown to oblivion.
That’s the first 90 seconds of a show I want to write.
The even better hook is that Sarah, a fuck-up with a thug/drug dealer for a boyfriend, is not above stealing the poor dead girl’s identify, emptying her sizable bank account, and having a romp in the sack with her unsuspecting lover, Paul (Dylan Bruce), who is a major upgrade in the beefcake department. It’s all great until she finds out “Beth” was a cop on the verge of being charged with the killing of an unarmed civilian. And she’s being pursued by a yet another identical woman. Oh, an assassin is after her, too. Yikes. Maybe she should have realized Beth jumped in front of that train for a reason.
Maslany, who looks a bit like Minnie Driver, plays Sarah as a Brit and “Beth” as an American, further complicating her character’s precarious situation. Some viewers might be turned off by such an appalling protagonist, but I enjoyed Maslany’s efforts to make her likeable all the same, and the BBC has certainly never shied away from morally suspect females as main characters. Yeah, we Americans have Dexter and all, but he’s a guy, and the public here has a much higher tolerance for bad boys than for bad girls. Look how horrified people are by Lena Dunham, and she ain’t the one playing a serial killer.
Keeping Orphan Black from becoming too caught up in intrigue and suspense and losing its humanity (I’m looking at you, Person of Interest) is Jordan Gavaris as Felix, Sarah’s effeminate BFF and confidante. Like most shows with a prominent gay character, he gets the best lines, but he’s far more than a prissy caricature and plays an integral part in the unfolding story.
The quality of BBC dramas is really quite startling, almost to the level of alternate reality. What should be more stodgy and clueless and out of date than a British state television network? By all rights, they ought to be making limp period pieces shot with a VHS camcorder, written by and for 80-years-olds, and formatted for 19” tube televisions made by Zenith. But no, you can surf into any random episode of Dr. Who, Downton Abbey, or Sherlock and be instantly sucked in. Though produced for BBC’s offspring, BBC America, the same holds true for Orphan Black.
This series will probably go off the rails, like virtually every show of the past ten years that featured a continuous, high-stakes storyline, for the same reasons I’ve expounded upon here many times in the past: Either the mystery is solved or the hero dies. Otherwise, we get stuck in an endless cycle of overheated nothing. But that’s a problem for next season. This season it’s about getting into the orphanage, not out.