We’ve mentioned Orphan Black a couple of times on this blog, but we’ve yet to do any all-out fangirling over its awesomeness. The show is feminist, smart, funny, and stars an incredible actress. Orphan Black follows Sarah Manning as she impersonates a woman with whom she shares a striking resemblance, and in the process discovers that she is one of many clones, and stumbles into a massive conspiracy involving the people who created the clones and the people who want to destroy them. It might be better known as the show BBC America was trying to push on Doctor Who series 7.2 viewers (airing right after episodes). At first, I thought that such marketing tactics were cheap, and meant the show wouldn’t be able to survive on its own merits. Oh, how wrong I was. So here’s my argument for why you need to watch Orphan Black.
Orphan Black has a creative, captivating storyline. The writers treat their subjects with a fair amount of realism. Many of the various issues concerning human cloning addressed. What does being a clone mean for your personal identity and sense of self? Do you tell your family? Who counts as family, anyway? How far would you go to preserve your family? If human clones already exist as full-grown adult persons, how do we react to it? How far is too far to go with genetic modification? Orphan Black covers the full range of possible reactions, from destructive religious fanaticism to overzealous and reckless scientific philosophy and all the down-to-earth, everyday implications in between. It’s action-packed, fasted-paced, and at the same time quite thought-provoking.
Tatiana Maslany’s performance as all members of the “Clone Club” is incredible. Maslany has a significant history doing long-form improv (over ten years!), and her skills are obvious. She plays three main characters and multiple side characters, not to mention characters impersonating other characters. The principle main character is Sarah, a British punk with a criminal record and a hand-to-mouth lifestyle. The other two main characters are Cosima, the hippie lesbian scientist, and Alison, the neurotic soccer mom. Then we have a whole range of supporting clones: violent and fanatically religious Helena, police officer Beth, rich German Katja. Not to mention Tatiana playing Sarah pretending to be Alison, Alison pretending to be Sarah, and Helena pretending to be Sarah pretending to be Beth. I can’t imagine what her work schedule must be like. Needless to say, this show passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.
The cast of characters also provides the audience with lots of positive representation. Felix, Sarah’s foster brother, is flamboyantly gay. He happily embraces many gay stereotypes: he’s fashionable, promiscuous, and occasionally serves as Sarah’s gay best friend. On the other end of the spectrum, Cosima is a lesbian whose sexuality is presented as normal. To Sarah, she defends her right to be with someone, as Sarah has an off and on fling with a man. Cosima’s relationship is treated with the complexities of any real-life relationship, suffering from communication and insecurity issues (not to mention all the clone conspiracy going on). Ultimately, she’s believable, and as a main character, this is especially important. Sarah and Alison are the two mothers among the clones, and couldn’t be more different. Sarah struggles to patch together a life that would allow her to regain custody of her daughter Kira, while Alison seems to lead the “perfect” suburban housewife life for her two adoptive children. But what’s clear is that both characters love their children, and would do anything for their benefit. Similarly, both Cosima and Felix are completely unashamed of their sexuality; it’s a vitally important, but not all-consuming, part of their identities.
However, Orphan Black could stand to have more racial representation. Beth’s partner on the police force is a black man, Detective Arthur “Art” Bell. Art serves two primary purposes in the show. The first is to give depth to Beth’s character. Through Sarah’s eyes we discover that Beth is under investigation for killing a suspect in a chase on foot, but Art is coaching Sarah (as Beth) to give a specially-tailored version of what happened. It’s unclear if Art is supposed to be a dirty cop, or just a loyal partner concerned for their careers. Second, Art takes the lead on the police investigation that seems to be honing in on discovering the existence (and murders) of the clones. While Art’s character plays an important role in advancing the plot and understanding major characters, his own character is fairly two-dimensional. He isn’t too much more than a loyal companion stock character. Similarly, later in the series we meet a mother who is black, but her character acts more like a plot device; she gives us exposition, and not much else. The choice to make a character whose race is inconsequential to her function a person of color is good, in the sense that it breaks up the mostly white cast. But the series would do well to add some depth to Art’s character, and to include other characters of different ethnicities as the show explores the competing conspiracy factions.
Orphan Black includes many of the different components that we need to demand from our television networks. It has a cast of predominantly female characters, romantic relationships that only serve as subplot or to help move along the major plotlines, and queer characters and relationships are given equal footing to the heterosexual ones. Many fans were outraged to learn that Orphan Black was completed snubbed of any Emmy nominations, though science fiction always has a tougher time at the major awards shows. I think the biggest reason for this is that Orphan Black hasn’t developed enough of a following to be taken seriously. Shows with a high fantasy motif, such as Game of Thrones, are gaining more and more traction as serious artistic works. It is only a matter of time before science fiction is also recognized as something that can be enjoyed by more than a niche audience. The most powerful way to change typical white-hetero-cis-male paradigm in entertainment is to support those works that challenge it.