Thursday, May 16, 2013

Orphan Black is the New Black

BBC America has a fantastic line up of shows for the mystery and thriller fans, whether you’re looking at historical set police procedurals like Copper or Ripper Street, detective mysteries like Sherlock, or over the top police drama like Luther, but the most inventive and off the hook so far and my favorite has to be Orphan Black. I think Orphan Black also most clearly represents all the elements in the other shows that take a refreshing dramatic departure that makes the BBC line up such a powerhouse.

For those who have not seen Orphan Black, it’s a ‘future is now kind of black thriller/mystery’, in that you quasi know the villains, but are mostly finding things out as the main character discovers then, with little explanation like you get these days with so many shows. Plus it’s got the sci-fi element down with dark science gone bad. The premise revolves around a street smart foster child grown up named Sarah, who’s coming home to her foster brother, and former foster mom, in hopes of getting back her young daughter. In doing so she sees a woman who looks just like her jump in front of a train and kill herself. Sarah is already on the run from a drug dealing ex and ever the opportunist, sees a chance to steal the identity of her dead ringer along with her bank account. Except she gets snagged in the life as well – her doppelganger was a cop, up on charges for shooting a civilian and seeing a shrink for tottering on the brink of madness. And with good reason. Beth, the cop, is a clone. And in becoming Beth, Sarah learns she’s a clone as well. She meets (so far) 4 additional versions of herself, including two who are also trying to figure out why they are clones, and who’s trying to kill them. True to form, they’re not what you’d expect as clones, once being a control freak soccer mom Alison, and the other, an off-beat hipster science student named Cosima.  

Someone is trying to kill the clones. Sarah just wants Beth’s cash, but to get it, she has to play the long con of being Beth and that brings her into the orbit of the other clones, and the conspiracy that created them and is now trying to destroy them. The more she tries to dig out, she digs in. The more she tries to escape, the deeper she goes. Meanwhile she’s keeping up the façade of Beth, and most times barely maintaining the front.

She has a partner cop named Art who is just the right mix of surly and suspicious, who knows things are not right in paradise. She has Beth’s boyfriend Peter, who’s also not what he seems. But best of all, she has Felix, her foster brother, a modern day painter version of Freddy Mercury with better teeth and the same level of creative panache and droll wit. Felix is her loyal partner in crime, and even helps her fake her death, identifying Beth’s dead body as Sarah, and helping her detonate the powder keg that becomes the story of Orphan Black.

The Canadian produced mystery is not always factually correct, in fact the first episode was supposed to be NYC, but it bombed on accuracy, and is now simply set in “the city” which could be anywhere USA. What they nail with absolute deft brilliance is storytelling and character – my GAWD do they get character. You are dropped into the madness with Sarah, what she knows you know, and occasionally just a smidge more but not enough for things to get laborious.

It’s refreshing to watch not only because you have no idea what will happen next, and really, it’s a complete rollercoaster where insane plot twists and turns are concerned, but because no one is info dumping constantly and ruining the magic. It’s modern day Perils of Pauline with a very likeable, very capable, street smart female protagonist in a creepy here and now that could very well exist in the shadows of today’s mad science. Cloning is the premise, but mother daughter sister relationships are explored, as well as modern day family concepts, and motherhood (both biologic and there for the long haul). Sarah’s especially enjoyable because she’s not tied up in emotional drudge with a male lead. She’s happy enough to use Beth’s boyfriend to get what she needs, but deftly keeps him at arms length, instinctively knowing that he’s a complication her long con can’t afford.

This is the kind of story I enjoy reading, the kind of heroine I favor, and I wish more books and more TV took this vigorous approach to story-telling. Now I am known for favoring more action than not, and everyone knows I love weird stuff and mad science, but still, there is a vibrancy to this that so much pre-produced drama lacks and I think it’s because we spend too much time out of the gate trying to explain every detail and nuance thus numbing the audience into a coma, and too much effort on rubber stamp clichés that act in all too predictable a manner. I think BBC America has nailed it with this brilliant Canadian science fiction mystery/thriller and that Orphan Black is worth anyone’s time if you’re the kind of person who enjoys a wild, and sometimes frantic ride through a story filled with complex, conflicted and not always on the game characters.



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