Most series that average just a half million viewers per week have a little trouble generating award-season buzz, but Orphan Black isn’t most shows. It’s one of the best shows; the only problem is that no one is actually watching it.
Genre fans are living in a golden age of television these days, with series like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead tearing up the charts as fellow standouts such as Arrow and Doctor Who continue to carve out strong niches. But ratings aren’t always indicative of quality, and those aren’t the only awesome shows out there.
Not content to keep riding the coattails of Doctor Who and other imports from across the pond, BBC America expanded into original science fiction fare last season and took a shot on an ambitious little series that — at face value — sounded almost like a ripoff of The CW’s fairly terrible (and short-lived) Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle Ringer. Oh, how wrong that early assessment was.
Instead, the network had essentially given screenwriter Graeme Manson and director John Fawcett free rein to develop an insanely deep character drama framed around a cloning conspiracy. They also gave the duo enough development time to map out not just the first season, but a framework for future seasons so they could plant seeds and start peeling back layers until those happy few actually watching realized that, yes, this is one of the best shows on television, science fiction or otherwise.
In an interview with Vulture following the season-one finale, Manson explained how that extended development cycle gave them enough time to cook up all the twists and turns that left a half-million jaws on the floor each week:
“We had such a long development period with Orphan Black. John and I were working on it together — our concept of clones and the depth of what the conspiracy might be and the Zeitgeist issues of the day around cloning and genetics — so we have a really good idea of our long game. The trick is, of course, you don’t know how many seasons you’re going to run. So we have an end point in mind, but we have to be flexible enough to have that end point stretch out further ahead of us and come up with more twists in the middle. We had a very good idea of what the season-two arc would be and what our goal was for season three. If we get to season three, that’s when we go, “okay, that end game we had in mind — do we push it further down the road, or do we gobble it up now and come up with something else?”
So, apart from the stellar writing and direction, what makes it all work? That’s an easy one: Tatiana Maslany. The scarily talented actress plays almost half a dozen characters — literally, per episode — and is so damn good you sometimes forget it's one person in all those roles. She can change everything from her accent to mannerisms on a dime, and has brought depth and dimension to every role she’s tackled.
Most fans have long ago picked out their favorite clones (as much as I love Sarah, there’s just something about Allison that keeps me pulling for her), and the writers have managed to build compelling arcs around every single character with their own lives and personal players, which all feed back into the larger narrative framed around main clone Sarah and her head-on battle with the conspiracy story.
Though that arc is the big narrative driver, the series shines brightest when it makes space for those smaller, character-driven side stories. From Cosima’s sickness to Sarah and Felix’s snarky brother-sister relationship, it's the characters that keep us coming back week after week. Heck, the past two episodes actually have us pulling for Allison’s hapless husband Donnie — which is saying something, considering his history.
The ratings have improved since last season, which isn’t saying much considering that the first year managed a meager .3 million average, and Live + 7 DVR viewership this season has managed to typically push the totals over the 1 million mark. But that’s not nearly enough — especially considering that sci-fi fans are always complaining about a lack of originality in genre fare. Stop complaining and watch this show.
It has everything. Seriously. Compelling characters? It has them in spades, although most of them are played by one actress. Plus, it’s largely led by strong female characters, which is pretty rare these days. A nice sci-fi conspiracy tying everything together? Bingo, as the Dyad Institute angle has only gotten more intricate and intriguing this season. All the show is lacking is an audience.
Along with the small -- but fervent -- Clone Club fan base the series has developed, it’s also been winning over celebs and media types left and right (us included) the past two seasons. Uber-geek Patton Oswalt previously said Maslany “absolutely deserves” an Emmy award. “Not a nomination. An Emmy,” he stressed, and most reviews in outlets big and small are overwhelmingly positive.
Even the ever-controversial Lost producer Damon Lindelof is a fan, noting in an interview last year the impact Maslany has on the series as a whole and making the concept believable:
“You could stick an episode in front of somebody who was uninitiated and say, ‘This role is actually performed by these triplets.’ And they would believe you. It’s easier to believe they’re super talented triplets than it is that it’s just one person … I think just for the sheer audacity of the accomplishment, let alone the fact that she pulled it off so brilliantly, I think it will make a lot of noise. If she can actually crack into the nominations, then I think she has a chance of winning. Because people will be, like, ‘Who’s this? What is this?’ I can’t think of anybody male or female who impressed me as much this past year.”
The season finale of Orphan Black airs this Saturday night on BBC America. Watch it, or at least record it and binge-watch the first two seasons (which come in at an easily digestible 10 episodes each) and then watch it. Trust us, you won’t be disappointed.