If you don’t regularly tune in to shows about global conspiracies, illegal medical research, and genetically identical clones, you may be forgiven for not watching Orphan Black, the serpentine Canadian-American science fiction drama that wrapped up its first season earlier this month on BBC America. (Season 2 will air in 2014.)
But not watching this compelling and surprisingly emotional cult drama—created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett—means that you missed out on one of the year’s most intense and astonishing television performances. In Orphan Black, Tatiana Maslany delivers a daredevil turn, playing no less than seven different roles, each one with their own mannerisms and secrets.
It’s no surprise that Maslany, a 27-year-old Canadian actress, has already been racking up accolades for her electrifying acting. On Monday, she was awarded the Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series and, on the same day, nominated for a Television Critics Association Award for Individual Achievement in Drama. While roughly two weeks remain before Emmy nomination ballots are due back from voting members, Maslany is already receiving buzz as a dark horse contender for a Best Actress spot. And with good reason, as Maslany’s versatile performance in Orphan Black would be a staggering feat for a veteran actor, much less for one recently starting out.
Maslany plays Sarah Manning, a sharp-tongued British grifter who sees an escape from her problems when a woman—one who looks identical to her—jumps in front of a moving subway train. Desperate to escape her abusive drug dealer boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando) and reclaim her young daughter, Sarah assumes the identity of her lookalike, slipping into her life in order to start a new one. But the dead woman—Beth Childs—is a cop under investigation for the shooting death of a civilian, and by assuming her identity, Sarah is drawn into a conspiracy that reveals her own true nature: that she and Beth are clones, closely monitored by their creators, and that someone is trying to kill them off. (The result is something akin to Ringer crossed with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s La double vie de Véronique with some Alias thrown in for good measure.)
Still with me? While there’s a lot of exposition in Orphan Black’s first few episodes, it’s Maslany’s distinct performances that ground the show with a very tangible sense of humanity. As the focus ratchets back and forth between Sarah and her genetic “sisters,” the differences that Maslany brings to the roles are starkly noticeable. It’s not just the wigs or the range of her shifting accents; it’s the way that Maslany holds herself, the way she tilts her head or moves her eyes, the way she dances or loads a dishwasher, that proves just how she fully embodies each of these characters.
The effect is intoxicating, as Maslany doesn’t just give the audience a subtly different “Sarah” seen through a fragmented prism, but seven individual characters, a masterful accomplishment. Each of the clones behaves in her own unique way, each with her own distinctive body language, timbre, and sensibilities. Sarah’s bruised toughness is quite different to Alison Hendrix’s uptight soccer mom fragility, just as the hipster sensuality of Cosima Niehaus’ evolutionary developmental biologist is worlds apart from copper Beth’s no-nonsense brusqueness or Helena’s sociopathic intensity.
The latter character shows just how wide Maslany’s range truly is, as she imbues Helena with the raw anger of a caged animal thrashing against the bars, a sharp departure from her polar opposite, enigmatic and icy corporate warrior Rachel Duncan. Yes, numerous actors have played twins before—often resulting in wildly different performances—but no other actor has come close to achieving what Maslany does in Orphan Black, appearing in nearly every scene over the course of the show’s 10-episode first season run while altering her chemistry in scenes with her co-stars.
That Maslany deftly pulls off seven distinctive performances—ranging from prim and proper to psychotic—underlies the main conceits of the show: how do our experiences define us? Does nature trump nurture? Why are these women—all genetically the same—so different and how has their environment shaped the person they’ve become? What happens when we see ourselves through a warped mirror? Orphan Black’s very best sequences typically feature Maslany portraying several of the members of the “clone club” together. These scenes could easily deflate under the weight of exposition, but instead they’re riveting, whether the camera captures Maslany as Sarah, Alison, and Cosima, united against a common threat as they discuss clones in a pristine suburban home, or a knives-out confrontation between mortal enemies Sarah and Helena at a low-rent coffee shop. Yes, those scenes require arduous post-production special effects in order to capture the “reality” of the moment, but it’s Maslany’s craftwork that truly makes these sequences soar. (It helps too that Maslany is surrounded by other talented actors, including Downton Abbey’s Maria Doyle Kennedy—as Sarah’s foster mother Siobhan “Mrs. S.” Sadler—as well as Jordan Gavaris, Matt Frewer, and Dylan Bruce, to name a few.)
The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences—whose members are those voting for the Emmys—doesn’t typically like to celebrate genre television when handing out awards. That’s a real shame as it would be criminal not to celebrate the fluidity and drive of Maslany, who is more than deserving of some Emmy love. Additionally, Orphan Black is far more than just a facile clone drama, offering a bracing plunge into the dark waters of cutting-edge medical research, exploring both the ethics of genetic manipulation and the intense fervor of religious opposition. In an era of constant surveillance, Orphan Black’s premise feels especially timely, skillfully generating a taut atmosphere of paranoia and fear where anyone could be the watched or the watcher.
If Emmy voters can put aside any ingrained antipathy towards science fiction programming, what they’ll find in the daring Orphan Black is a bravura performance by Maslany, a young actor who is only just launching what promises to be a powerful body of work for many years to come.