The new BBC America series Orphan Black (Saturdays, 9 p.m.), about a woman who suspects that she’s part of a science experiment gone awry, is amusing but not riveting. For all its violence, sex, and wry comedy, it doesn’t quite connect. To explain why, I’ll need to give up plot details that you might have preferred to discover yourself; consider yourself spoiler-warned.
Tatiana Maslany stars as Sarah, an English-born petty criminal who stole a bag of cocaine from her sleazebag boyfriend and went the run. While waiting on a train platform, Sarah makes eye contact with a young woman who looks exactly like her; when Sarah approaches to get a closer look, the woman takes her shoes off and leaps onto the train tracks to her death, leaving her purse behind. Sarah takes the purse and decides to assume the identity of the dead woman, partly to escape her current troubles but mostly because there wouldn’t be a show if she didn’t. As it turns out, the dead woman, Beth, is a police detective who was in disciplinary trouble after a problematic shooting. Sarah steps into Beth’s shoes just as she’s being called on the carpet. The ensuing sequence – in which Sarah has to convincingly fake being Beth even though she has no idea what a police detective does, much less what Beth’s in trouble for – has a panicky kick. It’s like one of those horrible dreams in which you have to play the lead role in a drama without studying the lines, or take a test for which you haven’t studied. The whole show is like that: a series of impulsive, often wild improvisations by Beth, and by Maslany, who navigates a conspiracy that has something to do with cloning, and plays different versions of herself within the same episode, sometimes the same scene.
Orphan Black, a sci-fi mystery that’s populated by British and American actors but shot in Toronto, is mainly a showcase for Maslany. She’s undeniably impressive. She plays herself, and herself imitating the dead policewoman, yet a third character who pops up near the end of the pilot, and (as they used to say in old K-Tel ads) many, many more. She’s funny, sexy, and very natural, even in scenes so contrived that I expected the filmmakers to step in front of the camera and do a little soft-shoe routine, complete with Bob Fosse top hat and cane. She does all sorts of accents, wears an array of clothes, shoes, and wigs, gets embroiled in action scenes and sleeps with hunky dudes (including Dylan Bruce, a beef-slab who leads with his pecs). And she has great chemistry with Jordan Gavaris, who plays Sarah’s foster brother and best friend, a gay hustler and quip machine.
Why don’t I love this show? Maybe it’s because the main selling point, Maslany’s virtuosity, takes me out of the same drama in which I’m supposed to be immersed. This isn’t a scenario like Dead Ringers or The United States of Tara, where the same actor plays multiple characters from the beginning, and after a while you stop thinking about how they did it and decide to accept that you’re looking at two or more different people even though you’re really not. Orphan Black already seems as if it’s closer in spirit to a sketch comedy series in which every sketch is undergirded with extra-dramatic awe: “Wow, the star is really versatile …Who’d have thought she could be convincing as a sumo wrestler?” If the plotting weren’t so loose and ragged – letting Sarah get out of situations via improvisations that Fletch might consider half-assed – I might feel different, but when nearly every scene has that “Don’t worry, folks, it’s only a TV show, nothing really matters” lightness, the sequences that ought to be emotionally wrenching or just suspenseful seem weightless instead. Orphan Black is a cool, clever show, and I don’t discount the possibility that it could become great, or at least excellent; but for now, both its tone and its premise seem worrisomely limited.