A fun question to pose Orphan Black fans—a question that the fans themselves are not above posing to the series’ showrunners—is “Which clone is your favorite?” Is it Sarah, the ex-punk single mom? Alison, the uptight soccer mom? Helena, the bleach-blonde Ukranian assassin? Showrunner Graeme Manson admitted at the Austin Television Festival that he has a soft spot for Cosima, the sweet, dreadlocked scientist. Co-showrunner John Fawcett, meanwhile, likes Alison, at least in part because she’s based on his sister.
But as This Was TV’s Greg Boyd pointed out to me on Twitter, the best clone is any clone impersonating another clone. (And that happens quite a bit.)
Orphan Black, whose second-season finale airs Saturday night, is a massive inside joke. The crew behind the show and the audience conspire on one crucial point: It’s just one woman playing all of these clones. There’s some willing suspension of disbelief involved in accepting the premise of any show—especially a science-fiction show—but Orphan Black is having too much fun to bother much with your credulity. They know it’s Tatiana Maslany, the audience knows it’s Tatiana Maslany, so why not play with that?
Maslany, a Canadian actress who was basically unknown before this role, has now won multiple awards for her turn on Orphan Black, where she plays Sarah, Helena, Cosima, Alison, Rachel, Beth, Tony, Jennifer, Katja… 12 clones in total, though only about five on a regular basis. It’s easier than ever to make one actress playing numerous parts look convincing, and Orphan Black has mastered the visual effects, which look like a combination of convincing stand-ins and artful CGI.
But Orphan Black is not strictly a technical achievement, or even just an acting achievement on Maslany’s part. What really stands out about the show is how funny it is, given it’s about subject matter that should be rather tragic. This is a group of women who learned, over the course of the first season, that they are the property of a research company conducting experiments on them; some of the clones have tried to kill other clones, multiple times. They are surrounded by figures who are trying to take some part of their autonomy—whether that is their DNA, their health, their children, or their freedom. As Caroline Framke has discussed in her excellent weekly reviews, the show uses cloning to tell a dark, complex story about women’s bodies—including ownership, fertility, and standards of beauty.
Yet somehow, right from season one, Orphan Black managed to balance this pathos with sharp wit. These are not clones who are particularly glum about finding duplicates of themselves—maybe that’s something their makers looked for in their DNA. They’re not above making jokes about their clone status, or referring to themselves as “The Clone Club,” even when people are trying to kill them. And best of all, they impersonate each other—with mixed but always shocking results, as Maslany filters one of her performances through another, either to fool a family member or to slide a knife between an enemy’s ribs.
This season of Orphan Black has had a little trouble finding its arc—heavy on story, as characters shuffled from one place to another, but light on plot. It’s not wholly surprising, as the first season of the show took up so much space with its ambitions. But where the plotting sometimes falls through, Orphan Black relies on the inherent humor of Maslany playing all these clones to carry the show forward. Maslany is a gifted comedian, on top of everything else, and in particular her reading of Alison and Helena’s increasingly hilarious lines have made those characters delightful. She’s joined by Jordan Gavaris, who always lightens the mood—“I may have spiked his tea,” he says disarmingly, as his target thuds to the floor, unconscious.
It’s the type of thing that a British comedy would do—and indeed, though it’s Canadian, it seems that Orphan Black is demonstrating shades of its corporate parent, the BBC. The body-swapping near-slapstick, punctuated with coyly fluttering lashes and a few cutting lines, recalls recent shows like BBC’s Sherlock. Part of what makes Orphan Black so appealing is, like Sherlock, its comfort in shifting the tone of the story so suddenly.
This season alone, Alison’s husband accidentally killed a guy, and then the two found the process of hiding his body so arousing that they rekindled their long-abandoned lust for each other. Helena responded to the news that her eggs had been harvested and fertilized with a matter-of-fact, Ukrainian accented, “Take me to my babies.” (As the British might say, how droll.) And in the season’s best episode, “Governed As It Were By Chance,” Orphan Black played not with humor and tragedy but with love and horror: Sarah and Helena confronted each other, both bleeding and terrified, and then collapsed upon each other instead of fighting.
But there are times where those tonal shifts work against the characters. A hallmark of this season, aside from confused plotting and comedy, is that the show is veering close to fan service—and though that isn’t inherently bad, it usually gets in the way of quality storytelling.
Probably the best example of this is “Variable And Full Of Perturbation,” which introduced the latest clone—Tony, a trans man with a scraggly beard. Tony walks into the flat owned by Gavaris’ character, Felix—who is Sarah’s gay foster brother—and immediately begins flirting. The episode eventually leads the two to make out, and it is—very purposefully—so weird. According to the showrunners at ATX, Maslany and Gavaris insisted on the romance, and were excited to (finally) make out on-screen. Which seems to further the point: This is a joke.
And that is fine, because it is funny—or at the very least, striking. But the problem with fan service is that it undermines the show’s own characters. It’s the tail wagging the dog: If you’re expecting a show where the audience responds to the characters, it’s a little jarring—and hard to take seriously—when that scenario flips the other way around.
Orphan Black’s seeming lack of concern for America’s delicate fan-service sensibilities makes it something of an oddity. On one hand, its sheer nerve is continually entertaining. The series has become a huge sandbox for Maslany and the rest of the cast, as well as for the ever-unfolding and increasing horror of the clones’ lives. On the other hand, it’s hard to gauge whether the show is taking itself, or fun, or acting, particularly seriously. These are clones that just want to have a good time, even in the face of total genetic replication. In some ways, it defies easy categorization, but maybe that’s because it’s so comfortable with copies—if Maslany has 12 versions of herself, why can’t the show? At the very least it will never be boring.