BBC Video // 2013 // 450 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 16th, 2013
A clone is never alone.
Television and movies love the "girl from the wrong side of the tracks gets involved in an international conspiracy" story. All the variations on the basic La Femme Nikita plot demonstrate that pretty easily -- and yet just when you thought it had all been done, a new contender comes along to show that the formula hasn't been completely wrung out. Orphan Black is just such a show. Though on paper the "taking over the identity of a dead woman" sounds like a recipe for disaster, it's in fact the perfect launching point for one of the best performances on TV in the twenty-first century. Not only that, but it's the start of a show that's thrilling and compelling in equal measures.
Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany, Diary of the Dead) is a small-time con woman who needs to get her life back on track. When she's on a subway platform she sees a woman who looks just like her, but before she can be more than surprised, the woman jumps in front of a train. Sarah decides to take her identity, hoping that the dead woman's life is better than hers. This starts her on an odyssey that will see her discover a mystery whereby a number of women seem to share her face.
Orphan Black lives and dies with its star, Tatiana Maslany. The entire premise is predicated on her ability to play numerous versions of the same genetic type. This requires her to walk a very fine line between ensuring that all of her characters have seomthing in common while also making them distinct personalities with important differences. It also means that technically, she's playing against herself for a significant amount of the show's running time -- just Tatiana talking to Tatiana. This has a recipe for boredom all over it, and yet there's something marvelous about the way Maslany distinguishes all these different characters. From the first moment Sarah Manning tries on Beth Childs' accent, going from a straight English to American accent, trying the latter on like a pair of tight-fitting jeans. Not since Jeremy Irons' performance in Dead Ringers has it been this easy to forget that the same actor is playing two different characters.
Tatiana Maslany is obviously the center of the show, but her co-stars are the icing on the cake. Special shoutouts should go to Jordan Gavaris and Kevin Hanchard. Gavaris is Sarah's foster brother, and his character is a kind of reality check for Sarah as she investigates all of the craziness going on in her life. He's a play on the "gay best friend" stereotype, but Gavaris invests the character with enough humanity and personality to elevate his portrayal above the usual cliches. Similarly, Hanchard plays Beth's partner, and he's a variation on the "cop with a dark secret." Like Gavaris, Hanchard makes Art his own, offering viewers an interesting take on the cop archetype. The rest of the cast are excellent as well, but these performances stand out.
The show also gets its structure right. It's almost a miracle anyone broadcast Orphan Black: Season One because it feels like a seven-and-a-half-hour film that got broken up into episodes almost arbitrarily. Like the recent House of Cards, Orphan Black feels like a television show created for binge watching. I can see viewers watching the first episode and going "Hmm, that's interesting, I should probably watch more," but by the time the second episode ends the hooks are in, and it's a race to finish all ten episodes. Revelations, complications, and outright twists come fast and thick throughout the run, giving us insight into the characters while also keeping the mystery of the plot moving as well. The first episode is especially good at throwing viewers in the deep end and expecting everyone to keep up. There's not delaying, not attempts to ease viewers into the world of the show. Instead, we get a breathless plunge into Sarah Manning's world and the issues of her double(s). It's a smart choice that will get most viewers invested quickly and completely.
This DVD is excellent as well. The 10 episodes are spread across three discs, giving plenty of room for these 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers. The show has a slightly dark, stylized look about it, and that's well-represented here. Detail is strong, colors are appropriately saturated, and black levels are consistent and deep. No compression artifacts crop up either. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks are similarly good. Dialogue (and Tatiana's many accents) are always clean and clear, while the surrounds get a good workout from ambient effects and the excellent score.
Extras consist of featurettes. First we get a general overview, then a set visit with Maslany and Nerdist guru Chris Hardwick followed by four mini-featurettes that look at individual characters.
I have a bit of a quibble with the show; I think it tries a little too hard to be "sexy" at times. Though it makes sense that each of Maslany's characters would have a distinct sex life, it feels like some of those moments are added simply to sell the show rather than being integral parts of the plot and characterization. It's not a huge problem by any stretch, but it can be a bit distracting. The same goes for the accents; if you're a real stickler then Maslany's linguistic forays into other countries might sound a bit off. They all sound different, which is more important in this context than them sounding right, but if you're bothered by those things, then Orphan Black might lose you.
Also, like most shows built around a central mystery, Orphan Black always has the potential to go off the rails. The show was renewed for a second season before this one finished airing, so it's going to be interesting seeing where the narrative has to go. Sensitive viewers might want to give the show another season to see if it's worth investing ten or more hours in a story that might be more sizzle than steak.
Most of the buzz surrounding Orphan Black has to do with Tatiana Maslany's performance. The buzz is well-earned, and even those who normally shy away from sci-fi inflected thrillers might want to give Orphan Black a chance just to see her remarkable performance. With this solid DVD release, fans can dive into ten episodes of a thriller all at once, with some decent extras to round things out. Worth a least a rental for fans of dramatic thrillers.
Review content copyright © 2013 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 450 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site