When it was originally on: 2013-2017
Original network: Space (Canada) or BBC America (U.S.)
Where you can stream it now: Amazon Prime
Had I seen it before: Nope.
What IMDb says: A streetwise hustler is pulled into a compelling conspiracy after witnessing the suicide of a girl who looks just like her.
Why I picked it: As I was fleshing out my “British Imports” category, Orphan Black seemed like a natural choice. It had a following without being a runaway success, and there’s not too much other Sci-Fi stuff on The List. It wasn’t until later that I learned the show actually originated in Canada, not the U.K.
Orphan Black is also one of those interesting cases that didn’t seem to develop its following until later in its run, at least in the U.S. I remember seeing tons of ads for it on BBC America, but not really knowing anyone who watched it. Yet around Season 3ish, suddenly Orphan Black felt like a thing people were talking about. Tatiana Maslany even won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series at the Emmys in 2016, the show’s third season. It should be interesting to see if the pilot feels like more of a slow burn show, or if it starts out with a bang.
What I liked: I talk a lot about what does and doesn’t make for a good protagonist, and over the years I’ve noticed a pattern: good protagonists make choices that ordinary people wouldn’t make when faced with the same circumstances (read more detail on this here). In this respect, Orphan Black passes the test with flying colors. The whole pilot is based on a rather outlandish idea that just might work: Sarah tries to assume the identity of someone who looks just like her after witnessing this other person’s suicide, thus faking her own death in the process.
The pilot also does a great job of putting Sarah in dire enough circumstances for her choices to make sense, but yet not trying to make Sarah an object of pity. Or at least, not making pity the primary emotion we feel towards her. Far too often, writers mistake feeling sorry for a character as the equivalent of liking a character. We sympathize with because she’s been separated from her daughter, and seems to be on the run from a drug lord. But she’s also intriguing and interesting because of the way she asserts control over her own story.
Sarah’s self-direction helps minimize the pity factor because we can see how oftentimes, her dire circumstances are the result of prior actions. By the end of the pilot, Sarah’s problems are much worse than they were at the beginning. She is legally dead, and can’t reach out to most of her friends and family. She is being investigated for a murder she didn’t commit. Her young daughter believes her to be dead. And then there’s the whole issue of “who is this other person that looks exactly like me and where did they come from?” There’s so many interesting conflicts, and I also have faith that the way Sarah goes about handling them will also be interesting.
What I didn’t like: Not much. The only issue I can think of is that many of the supporting characters feel underdeveloped, but Sarah is a strong enough protagonist to carry this episode on her own, so it didn’t bother me much.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Yes! It’s an interesting story, and I think television could certainly do with more Sci-Fi content that fall outside the Star Trek/general space exploration model.
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