Saturday 28 November 2020

Out of the Blue: An Orphan Black Retrospective

A young woman, Sarah, returns home to Toronto after almost a year away. Her plan is to pick up her daughter, Kira, from her stepmother Siobhan and use the gains from an ill-gotten coke deal to set up a new life for herself, her daughter and her arty stepbrother, Felix.

This plan is almost instantly derailed: at the station Sarah sees a woman who is her exact double suddenly jump in front of a train, being killed instantly. Sarah is horrified but also sees an opportunity. She takes the woman’s bag, phone and possessions, finds out where she lives and pretends to be her so she can empty her bank account. She learns the woman’s name is Beth Childs and she’s a police officer under investigation for accidentally shooting a civilian. Unfortunately, Sarah gets in over her head: she is forced to pretend to be Beth at work (despite having zero idea how police officers operate) and with Beth’s boyfriend Paul, and, to explain the body on the tracks, has to set up Beth as Sarah, making it look like Sarah herself is dead.

It’s complicated set-up and morass of double lives and identities. And that’s before Sarah finds out she’s really one of at least two dozen clones from an illegal 1980s experiment that went awry.

Orphan Black ran for fifty episodes across five seasons, airing from 2013 to 2017 on BBC America. It was critically well-received but relatively little-watched at the time, with very low viewing figures. Its critical cachet was considerably greater than its modest profile due to the performance of lead actress Tatiana Maslany, who played not just the main character of Sarah Manning but a dozen other roles across the course of the series (including voicing a hallucinatory scorpion). Maslany’s jaw-dropping performance saw her nominated three times for a Best Actress Emmy Award, winning once in 2016. The show also won a Peabody Award and a Hugo Award. Since its original airing, the show has been released internationally on Netflix and picked up many more appreciators.

Despite its acclaim, Orphan Black seems to have fallen out of favour pretty quickly. It rated mentions only on a few “Best Shows of the Decade” lists that appeared last year, and its status as the “little Canadian show that could!” feels like it’s been gazumped by sitcom Schitt’s Creek (not that it’s a competition, and Schitt’s Creek is also an excellent show). Rewatching the show in full for this article, it feels like Orphan Black has been a little undersold and underrated, especially as it’s a series whose original issues have largely been fixed by being able to watch the whole run now in one go.

Orphan Black’s overwhelming strength is its characters. Tatiana Maslany obviously has the heavy lifting to do here, playing the regular roles of not just British punk rebel Sarah Manning but also suburban housewife Alison Hendrix, genius scientist Cosima Niehaus, cool businesswoman Rachel Duncan and Ukrainian serial killer Helena. Later seasons add Swedish hacker Mika and nail technician and would-be social media influencer Krystal Goderitch, whilst cop Beth Childs appears a lot in flashbacks and video footage. Maslany’s ability to make each and every single character a fully fleshed-out individual, completely different from the others, is absolutely amazing. The complexity is increased when she has to appear in scenes with one clone impersonating another. From a technical standpoint, there are also multiple scenes with two, three or four clones interacting with one another (including a dance party in Season 2 and a dinner scene in Season 3), which required the use of cutting-edge effects techniques when the old greenscreen standbys were found to be inadequate. The combination of technology and performance delivers the very nearly flawless illusion of this one actress playing multiple characters.

Orphan Black probably doesn’t get enough love for its other castmembers, though. Jordan Gavaris plays Sarah’s stepbrother Felix, an artist, occasional rent-boy and one-man emotional support for the clones, to the point of putting his own life on hold (which becomes a source of anguish for him in the last two seasons, where he goes looking for his own biological family). I’m genuinely surprised Gavaris hasn’t had a bigger career, since he plays Felix with conviction, humour and steely resolve. Felix also has a nice line in metacommentary, frequently saying the exact thing the audience is thinking in any given moment. Perennial Canadian guest star Kevin Hanchard is also outstanding as Detective Art Bell, a genuinely good man whom Sarah is forced to lie to (by pretending to be his deceased partner, Beth) and who always tries to do the right thing even as the morality of the situations he finds himself in becomes murkier.

Particularly impressive is Maria Doyle Kennedy as Siobhan or “Mrs. S”, Felix and Sarah’s Irish stepmother and the unquestioned matriarch of their family unit. Her role is small to start with but later expands dramatically as she uses her network of contacts in Canada, the US, the UK and Ireland to help the clones. The same is true of Skyler Wexler as Sarah’s daughter Kira, who starts off with not much to do but Wexler’s impressive acting skills for such a young age make her a key player in later seasons.

Kristian Bruun plays Donnie Hendrix, Alison’s husband (Alison is the only one of the Clone Club to be married). Frequently played for laughs (such as when he and Felix have to pose as prospective gay parents when they go undercover in a fertility clinic), Donnie does have a greater dramatic role as the show proceeds. Keen board gamer Josh Vokey as Scott, Cosima’s partner-in-science-crime, is also an underrated key part of the ensemble. Évelyne Brochu is also outstanding as Cosima’s French girlfriend Delphine and the source of much of what Felix refers to as the show’s “lesbian drama,” who also can’t help but wear the most fabulous outfits on the show. Ari Millen is also great as a second set of clones, playing multiple roles. They’re not as numerous as Sarah’s doubles, but Millen does impressive work depicting very different characters.

The show also brings in genre veterans where necessary: Michelle Forbes (Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, True Blood) has a brief but memorable role in the second season, Matt Frewer (Max Headroom, The Stand) is outstanding as recurring semi-antagonist Dr. Leekie and James Frain (The Tudors, Star Trek: Discovery) is deliciously evil as assassin Ferdinand. Also, special mention must be given to Alison Steadman, a British veteran of film, stage and television, cast slightly against type as Siobhan’s chain-smoking, permanently angry mother in the third and fourth seasons.

So, the cast, beyond just star Maslany, is outstanding. Where Orphan Black does trip up a little, and this is the most frequent criticism voiced about the show, is its storyline.

The main problem with the story is that it’s never quite original enough. As soon as it becomes clear that Sarah is a clone (by the end of the second episode, so this is hardly a spoiler), the viewer’s immediate assumption is that this is an illegal genetic experiment which has been overseen by a powerful corporation with government involvement…and that’s what it turns out to be. If there’s one set of clones, the logical conclusion is that there might be more, and perhaps a set of male clones as well; this is confirmed in the second season. If they’re all clones, they must be clones of a genetic original who will be important to the plot, and that turns out to be the case in the third season. Orphan Black never really sets itself up to do anything surprising in general terms with the plot. Anyone who’s passingly familiar with contemporary science fiction shows from The X-Files onwards will likely be able to see most of the major plot movements coming down the road.

That is certainly all true, but in general terms I found it not to matter very much. Execution is more important than surprises and Orphan Black tells its story of shady corporate operations, illegal genetic experiments and complex backstory revelations with confidence and verve. The plot twists are logical, the character arcs are well-judged and the show’s trademark fast pace makes it perfect for bingeing. Cliffhangers abound and, if characters are in a difficult spot, you can be assured that situation will be resolved quite quickly rather than allowed to fester on for many episodes at a time. The show’s relentless pace can sometimes be a problem (maybe a bit more time to stop and smell the roses would have been nice) but, in a sea of other series with plot elements advancing so glacially they can only be measured in ice ages, it helps Orphan Black stand out from the crowd. This is a show that knows how to set up, execute and resolve a story arc with brisk economy.

That said, the economy of storytelling does lead to repetition. The main enemy in the first two seasons is the Dyad Institute and their backers, an ideological cause known as “Neolution.” After Dyad falls from grace, Neolution becomes the primary foe of the third through fifth seasons, first through subsidiary organisations (Project Castor and BrightBorn Industries in the third and fourth seasons) and then the Neolutionists directly in the final season. There are also other enemies, such as the Prolethean religious cult, and various criminals and gangs. It has to be said that the show probably should have focused on one enemy more than bringing in lots of subsidiaries which end up just being variations on a theme.

Far more critical to Orphan Black’s success is its mastery of tonal variation. Each one of the clones has their own personal storyline as well as playing a part in the larger storyline and each one of these could easily be a TV show by themselves. Donnie and Alison’s façade of suburban bliss, soccer games with the kids and Tupperware parties hides a darker story of pill addiction, marital boredom and frustration that veers into drug dealing, murder, mayhem and an increasingly large number of dead bodies buried under the garage. It’s by turns genuinely disturbing, laugh-out-loud hilarious and at times gag-inducing. However, the show can then turn on a dime and delve deeply into Cosima and Delphine’s overwrought, tragic love story of woe, which teeters on the edge of outright cliché (not helped by Felix pretty much narrating this story from the sidelines with morbid fascination) before being brought back down to Earth. The Cosima-Delphine romance is arguably the most compelling in the show and, thankfully, the producers have the sense not to lean on the “kill your gays,” trope that too many shows have indulged in.

Elsewhere we have the story of Helena, the innocent young Catholic girl turned into a homicidal weapon of mass destruction by a deranged religious group that believes all clones must be destroyed. Helena, a deeply damaged individual who serves as something of a villain for the first season, eventually overcomes her “training” and joins forces with Sarah and her other “sestras” to defeat their enemies and even declares a maternal ambition (Maslany's faux-Ukrainian-accented proclamation of "What about my babies?" soon becomes a key catchphrase). Helena’s story arc is one of the most successful in the show, even if the fact she did kill several innocent people in the first few episodes of the series is brushed under the carpet a little too easily.

There are too many other stories to really relate all of them in detail: Sarah’s own insecurities and in particular her feelings of guilt and inadequacy which forces her to slam the “self-destruct” button whenever anything goes too badly wrong (or too badly right, in some cases). Dealing with the clone situation gives her purpose and sees her direct her creativity, spontaneity and capacity for invention and thinking on her feet in a productive manner, but at several key moments she does nearly fall off the wagon and spiral back into depression, alcohol and substance abuse because, hell, the situations she puts herself in are quite hairy, and traumatic. Then there’s the tragic story of Beth Childs, which the writers leave until the final two seasons, where we see her backstory in detail and discover what led her to taking her own life in the opening seconds of the show. For a show that only lasts fifty episodes (less than a quarter the run of The X-Files), Orphan Black packs a hell of a lot of story into its modest run-time.

This balancing of tonal variation, of sometimes going from laugh-out-loud, warm-hearted comedy to something bleaker and more depressing, or romantic, or action-based, in the space of a few minutes is a key part of the show’s success. If Orphan Black was too funny or too bleak constantly it wouldn’t work, but by moving between these tones and styles, to the point of sometimes feeling like an anthology series, it creates a much richer story and world. Orphan Black knows when to be harsh and brutal, but also when to be warm and funny.

The show has a few other weaknesses. It has a problem holding onto guest stars. Michael Mando has a major role in the first two seasons and then vanishes without trace (in reality, poached by Better Call Saul). Michelle Forbes’ character is set up as a big deal in the second season, but she doesn’t appear again. Similarly, Michiel Huisman appeared in the second season in a major role and came back briefly in the third year, but he was nabbed by Game of Thrones (playing flamboyant mercenary Daario) and never appeared again, leaving some storylines flapping in the wind. This even extended to more core castmembers, with Évelyne Brochu contracted to appear in another show in the third season (which didn’t go the distance, allowing her to return later on). These problems are annoying but bearable; the show is always able to course-correct and carry on. The show also did the reverse: it brought back characters who’d apparently left behind for good to show how everything was connected and to make sure most of the loose ends were tied up in the finale.

The theme of Orphan Black is probably one of the oldest in narration: family. As the literal orphans of the title, the clones have no real biological families. Several of them have loving, adopted families (like Sarah, Cosima and Alison, and Rachel to an extent) but several of them were raised in much harsher circumstances (most notably Helena). As they uncover the mystery of their background, they form a tight unit and create a new extended family consisting of the clones, their friends and allies. This “clone club” bands together to defeat their problems and support one another through their individual issues. The impact of this is shown most clearly on Sarah, the staunch, punk-inspired loner who needs no one’s help and initially feels a failure as a mother, who finds then herself becoming almost the matriarch of a large, complex family of people who need help and support.

Orphan Black feels under-appreciated, but it’s a good time to revisit the show. Its web of complex conspiracies between various corporations felt a bit much during its original run, but watched as a whole it’s much more comprehensible. The character arcs and main storyline are executed reasonably well, and at fifty 44-minute episodes, it doesn’t go on for too long and outstay its welcome, but it’s also not too short and cut down in its prime. It tells a five-year story well and once it’s done, it moves on.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs.

No comments: