Are You Watching This? – Orphan Black


(WARNING: This article will contain modest spoilers pertaining to the first four aired episodes of Orphan Black, so consider yourself duly warned.)

One of the problems that frequently plagues sci-fi and/or fantasy programs is what I’ve always termed saccharin writing.

Saccharin writing is nice. It’s neat. It’s convenient. It’s predictable. It’s formulaic. It’s what allows for so many shows to inevitably resemble one another, making Star Trek TNG’s “spatial anomaly” bear more than a passing resemblance to Buck Rogers’ “space storm.” Characters end up getting short shrift because the emphasis is on the writer’s delivery of what amounts to a filmable script. That means whatever happens had all better wrap itself up easy-peasy in five-to-seven days of production. And, yes, it plagues all shows, not just sci-fi and fantasy, but methinks the nature of televised genre entertainment (think Stargate SG-1, Smallville, and even much of classic Star Trek) makes these programs a bit more susceptible than most.

Shows that break this mold usually garner some critical acclaim. For example, Syfy’s rebooted Battlestar Galactica managed to push the creative envelope by delivering a space-based allegory for our modern times. Another fine example remains ABC TV’s Lost, which managed to continuously re-invent itself and its stories along with its characters; while the jury’s still out about how well it all tied up, Lost still managed to effect the way tales get told. Even Fox’s The X Files managed to breathe new life into the old canards of UFO conspiracies, monster-of-the-week programming, and shadow governments.

BBC’s Orphan Black is the creation of John Fawcett and Graeme Manson.

Both men are industry professionals who know their way around quality television. Fawcett earned his stripes with such shows as Xena: Warrior Princess, Da Vinci’s Inquest, and the vastly-underrated and much overlooked Miracles.  By contrast, this is Manson’s first major gig as an executive producer. Also, there are a host of other staffers who’ve long been associated with genre entertainment, another fact that bodes well for a program searching for an audience. BBC America has aired four episodes to date, and I thought it time to chime in with another look on the matter.

Sarah Manning (played by Tatiana Maslany) is a streetwise grifter on-the-run from a dangerous boyfriend. On a rail platform late one night, she witnesses a young woman leaping to her death.  In that last fragile second before the jump, Sarah sees the girl’s face and realizes it’s her. Believing she’s now been given a new lease on life (by assuming the identity of the deceased), Sarah soon comes to the shocking discovery that there are even more of her waiting in the wings. It turns out that she is part of some bizarre cloning experiment gone curiously awry.

To make matters worse, someone has started killing them off one-by-one.

Think what you might, but it isn’t easy to deliver a compelling pilot episode. Under their direction, the showrunners created a tightly-paced first hour, one that successfully introduced Sarah, her troubled world, as well as that of her new identity: rookie police detective Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Childs. It seems Beth had her own share of secrets, including a troubled ex-boyfriend … not to mention a suspension from her job for a bad shooting … also some dubious flirtation with controlled substances … and a bank account full of an unexplained $75,000 in cash!

Sarah thought she had trouble before, but now – as reality spins out of control – she witnesses another clone shot dead in front of her eyes, and suddenly it’s personal.

However, the second and third episodes were not as kind to audiences as already a healthy dose of saccharin writing crept into the fray.

Beth’s suspension from the force gets resolved way too quickly – Sarah simply commits all of the case’s details to memory and manages to outwit her police psychiatrist, the review board, and her veteran partner (Art, played by Kevin Hanchard). Once re-instated, she ends up being assigned to the case of the body she dumped herself at the beginning of Episode 2. Plus, audiences learn that Sarah’s a natural with a firearm, handling her weapon like a pro (after a single lesson) on the firing range. Worse, audiences are led to believe that someone with absolutely no training as a police detective can simply take over a desk; there’s little thought given to Sarah’s unfamiliarity with paperwork, procedure, or protocol. Sadly, Sarah’s foster brother, Felix – yet another preening, snarky British ‘omnisexual’ – is given more screen time, bringing a cheesy diversion to what looked like it was going to be a relatively dark ride. (Episode 4 does give him a legitimately funny scene when he’s shown painting in the somewhat nude.) A few more clones join the program – a college-girl who dishes needed history much like ‘Oracle’ does for Batman in the DC Comics, and a delightfully uptight soccer mom with a fondness for the NRA – but they’re not enough to wash the bad taste from our mouths.

Suddenly, the once-streetwise grifter is running from her own earlier mistakes, and the story relies heavily on coincidence.

To be fair, the aforementioned Episode 4 does take a step toward righting the ship. Sarah comes face-to-face with the presumed assassin (I won’t spoil it), but the BBC’s penchant for openly trashing Christian fundamentalism weighs down that development. The writers finally find a use for keeping brother Felix involved, even if it ends up being little more than Sarah’s needed ‘Girl Friday.’  And the delightful soccer mom incarnation finally gets some quality exploration (yea!) when she rises up to Felix’s challenge to join with the craziness instead of demanding others make things right.

Orphan Black

If there’s a bright spot to Orphan Black, it’s that the producers did capture lightning in a bottle by casting Maslany as their complicated lead.

Her performances as a variety of female archetypes – the troubled teen, the hot urban professional, the bookish nerd, etc. – are inspired. Heck, even her glimpses at possible insanity (I promised I wouldn’t spoil it for you) were worth a look. Granted, there may not yet be enough differences between each of the prototypes to bring enough freshness and distinction to each role … but that soccer mom is a winner. (Seriously, at this point I’d watch a spin-off with this character alone. Maslany gets the character just so perfect.) Still, it’s early, and Maslany – who’s already easy on the eyes with her petite form and her perfect two-scoops-of-ice-cream breasts – is giving it a wonderful try.

After Episode 3, I almost hung it up … but Episode 4 earned it a reprieve from the DVR trash bin.

So long as they keep pushing it toward the dark, I’ll tolerate those saccharin moments of lightness, predictability, and coincidence.

Similar Posts


  1. I swear, all you have to do to get me to watch anything these days is put the word “black” in the title and it’s instantly interesting to me. Oooooh, daaaaaark! Imma look for this one on BBC America.

  2. I’ve enjoyed it so far. The success or failure of this show definitely lies in how well Maslany can pull off the multiple roles they’ve given her.

    Also, in your description of her physical appeal, how did you manage to leave out the sex scene in the first episode? One of the more intense I’ve ever seen on basic cable.

  3. The sex scene seemed kind of ridiculous to me. All she knew at that point was that Beth had a similar face, she had no idea what the rest of Beths body looked like. Maybe her tits look completely different? So why are you getting naked?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.