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Orphan Black is a Canadian science fiction drama, which airs on BBC America in the US, and can be found on Netflix in the UK. If you’re not watching it yet, you should be, because it’s absolutely fantastic.
The series follows a British grifter, Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany), who witnesses the suicide of policewoman Beth Childs (Tatiana Maslany). Noticing that they’re identical, Sarah assumes Beth’s identity - but in doing so, stumbles upon a much larger conspiracy, wherein she’s slowly introduced to ‘soccer mom’ Alison (Tatiana Maslany), scientist Cosima (Tatiana Maslany), assassin Helena (Tatiana Maslany) and so on and so forth.
You’ve likely realised the central conceit from the above description - each of these characters are clones. That’s where the “science fiction” aspect of “science fiction drama” comes from, after all.
These clones are all played by Tatiana Maslany, and it’s her performances that really makes Orphan Black sing. I’ve said before - when referring to Mathew Baynton in You, Me and the Apocalypse - that the mark of a really talented actor if, when watching them play dual roles, the audience forgets that they’re watching a single actor.
Maslany has this skill in spades - each character she portrays is so nuanced, and yet so meaningfully distinct, that it’s very easy to lose track of the fact that you’re just watching one woman. Sarah is as different from Alison as Alison is as different from Cosima as Cosima is from Helena as Hele - well, you get the picture. It’s no doubt a rewarding role for Maslany, given the opportunities it has afforded her to really demonstrate her range; she plays a mother struggling to live up the standards she set for herself, a woman with a terminal -illness, a sober ex-addict, and a somewhat reformed killer. Indeed, Maslany is even given the chance to play one of the villains of the piece, with a chillingly ruthless performance as corporate boss Rachel Duncan.
Her prowess is all the more apparent when the narrative presents a scenario in which one clone pretends to be another - we see Tatiana Maslany acting as a clone who’s acting as another clone. To see the normally uptight Alison giving her interpretation of the rougher, streetwise Sarah is a gift - and, indeed, vice versa. I was particularly fond of one exchange during the second season, where Sarah had to pretend to be Alison, role playing as her husband - it was a genuinely very funny scene, showing how well Maslany can pull of comedy as well as drama. On paper, it likely all sounds more than a little confusing; it’s down to the sheer strength of Maslany’s performance that it remains very easy to follow. Indeed, she inhabits the characters so well that there are times at which the audience can tell, immediately, which clone we’re watching even before it’s made explicit - Maslany pays close attention to the body language and tone of voice of each individual character, and this dedication to detail really pays off.
When I’m watching television, and indeed when I’m writing about it, I do tend to focus primarily on the script and the story of each individual episode. That’s largely because it’s what I’m most interested in; I’d like to be a screenwriter myself one day. As I’m composing these articles, then, I often find that I don’t necessarily comment on acting and performances in much depth.
That could never happen when talking about Orphan Black, simply because Tatiana Maslany’s performance demands your attention as a viewer. She is, put simply, a phenomenon - I have genuinely never seen a lead actor more adaptable, or more capable of giving such a wide range of performances.
I wrote this as a tribute to Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black, but frankly, there is no better tribute than Orphan Black itself. The program is a joy to behold, and that is down to her.
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