The Washington Post

BBC America’s ‘Orphan Black’: A stylish case of me, myself and I

Tatiana Maslany stars in “Orphan Black” on BBC America. (Steve Wilkie/BBC AMERICA)
TV critic

“Orphan Black,” premiering Saturday night after “Doctor Who,” is an original series from BBC America about a young woman on the run who finds out she’s part of a science experiment gone awry.

The show itself sometimes has the feel of a project that was synthesized in a sterile lab in which a sense of British cool has been grafted onto an Americanized network with a result that is distinctly and even antiseptically Canadian. It’s the TV equivalent of walking into a Benetton store or flipping through an issue of Wallpaper magazine.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

This high-tech, global sense of dislocation works to “Orphan Black’s” advantage — the show is just intriguing and quick-paced enough to lure you in. Tatiana Maslany stars as Sarah, a young woman fleeing a no-good boyfriend from whom she stole a bag of cocaine. While waiting on a train platform she sees a woman who looks just like herself; after they make eye contact, the woman leaps in front of a speeding train and gets squished.

Thinking fast, Sarah takes the woman’s purse and — as one does in these situations — assumes her identity. She lets herself into the dead woman’s apartment, cleans out her savings account, has sex with the woman’s understandably confused boyfriend (Dylan Bruce), who asks only, “What’d you do to your hair?” Quick enough, she learns the dead woman’s occupation: police detective.

And if that’s where you groan audibly and delete “Orphan Black” from your view queue, well, you’re no fun. “Orphan Black” is, after all, a sci-fi story, and it’s no spoiler to tout it as a crazy, mixed-up thriller about clones. Sarah, now posing as Beth, soon begins encountering the others who look just like her — a German hipster, a suburban mom, a bespectacled Velma with dreadlocks. Maslany ably confronts the task of playing all these women at once — as well as having a go at all the different accents — and she has a casual way of making Sarah’s bewilderment somewhat believable.

“Orphan Black” launches itself a little too fast and frantically, forcing Sarah into too many ludicrous situations at once, each of them straight out of pop culture’s crazy book of doppelgangers. Not only must she solve crime with her no-nonsense partner (Kevin Hanchard), but she also has to figure out why someone is trying to kill her and the clones. All Sarah wanted was to find enough money to run away and start her life over with her gay best friend (Jordan Gavaris) and the young daughter she left behind.

Instead, she is trapped in one of those TV shows that is edited and styled in a too-crisp manner. “Orphan Black” has the same plain club soda flavor you get in most cable action dramas now, but I have to say that I’m enjoying some of its fizz.

Orphan Black

(one hour) premieres Saturday

at 9 p.m. on BBC America.

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