Orphan Black, a very promising new thriller premiering tonight on BBC America, opens with Sarah (Tatiana Maslany), a young woman with a working-class British accent and a punk attitude, on an urban subway platform, engaged in a heated cellphone argument. In just a bit, we’re going to start to piece together her story: Sarah grew up in English orphanage and bounced around from one home to another until she and her foster brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris), were adopted by a “Mrs. S.” (Maria Doyle Kennedy, The Tudors), who brought her charges as teenagers to North America, for to-be-determined reasons. Since then, Sarah has given birth out of wedlock to a daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler), and the testy phone conversation is, in fact, with Mrs. S. over visitation rights.
Soon, however, our attention shifts to another slender brunette nearby, who slowly, almost ritualistically, begins taking off her outer garments and placing them neatly on the concrete platform with her handbag and shoes. As she turns, Sarah is stunned to notice the woman is her doppelganger, who gives her a brief, sad glance just before she hurls herself into the path of an onrushing train.
In the ensuing pandemonium, Sarah furtively snatches the victim’s handbag and flees. Discovering that her ill-fated double, Beth, had a well-stuffed bank account, Sarah – a petty criminal who rarely thinks in the long term – decides to adopt Beth’s identity long enough to empty that account, then grab Kira and flee for parts unknown. That rash decision swiftly sends Sarah down the rabbit hole, as she discovers to her dismay that Beth was a cop under investigation for shooting a civilian. Beth also had what appears to be a turbulent relationship with her boyfriend, Paul (Dylan Bruce, As the World Turns), as well as a safety deposit box that holds the birth certificates of a number of other young women from around the world … women with the same face as Sarah and Beth.
Beyond that, we have to stray into serious “spoiler” territory, so suffice it to say that this clever new mindbender appears to be splendidly constructed and executed, at least based on the four episodes BBC America provided for review. Sarah, still posing as Beth, keeps stumbling upon more and more riddles and enigmas, yet the scripts maintain a striking clarity so we don’t get hopelessly lost. We may not know where the story ultimately is going, yet we generally know at any given point what is going on in Sarah’s mind.
While Orphan Black is fairly dark, it’s leavened with humor, chiefly through the character of the flamboyant Felix, but also as these identical women start to interact and cover for each other in various dangerous situations. Of course, it helps immeasurably that Maslany, whose work I’ve never encountered before, is quite the chameleon, deftly slipping between these multiple characters clearly delineated by accent, hairstyle, attitude and even degrees of sanity. It’s quite a showcase performance, abetted by state-of-the-art special effects so transparent that when we see a scene with three Maslanys in a room together, it looks very credibly like three separate women interacting.
High-concept shows like this one are a risky business, and Orphan Black may well fall apart as the complicated story unfolds, but based on the first four hours, I can recommend it very highly for fans of this genre.