Why Every Storyteller Should Be Watching Orphan Black

Warning: Contains mostly minor spoilers. If you haven’t watched at least to the first few episodes of the season of Orphan Black, stop reading now, go to Amazon Instant, and buy them. Done? Great, now can keep reading.

I love to rant about crap on the Internet. Here’s how this thing I loved fucked up. Here’s how it could be better. Here’s the whitewashing, the sexism, the bullshit. It’s like putting up a dartboard and throwing darts all day. Fun, for awhile, but then it gets tedious. By focusing so much on the shit, you tend to forget to recommend the exceptional stuff. It comes along so rarely that it’s often buried in shit.

It’s a very rare thing for me to recommend a work wholeheartedly, but today I’m going to do that with a little show put out by BBC America called Orphan Black.

Orphan Black is the story of Sarah Manning, a headstrong former foster kid who’s now in her mid twenties, bumbling back into town after nearly a year away. While waiting for her train connection, she sees a woman with her face commit suicide. Doing what this particular punk girl is good at, she assumes the woman’s identity and goes to her house to steal her stuff. Her terrible plan is to collect her five year old daughter from Sarah’s foster mother, who’s been serving as the child’s guardian while Sarah fucks up her life running around with drug dealers and pulling shady con jobs.

Sarah is pretty much the worst possible person to be the hero of this story.art

As Sarah takes over the life of her doppleganger, Beth, she finds herself slowly pulled into a deeper and deeper conspiracy. What was supposed to be a quick and easy con job gets complicated as she starts fucking her doppleganger’s boyfriend, finds out her doppleganger was a cop who shot a civilian, and discovers that her foster mom has no interest in giving her back her daughter.

Oh, and it turns out that doppleganger?

It’s not a doppleganger.

It’s her clone.

Sarah and Beth are clones, and there are a whole lot more of them, all involved in a tangled web of crazy as they try and uncover who created them, who’s killing them and what they should do next.

What makes this such great television isn’t just the exceptional job Tatiana Maslany, the woman who plays All the Clones does in acting with herself throughout the majority of the show. It’s also the exceptional writing, the dialogue, the storytelling, and the deeply sympathetic, diverse, and well-drawn characters. One of the writers shared a credit on the Canadian movie Cube, another good movie that did a lot with strong actors on a shoestring budget.

The show chooses absolutely the wrong sort of person to be its hero – a down-and-out con artist and sometime drug dealer with a young child she abandoned to her foster mother (abandoned!) and I had a really difficult time connecting with her in the first couple of episodes. How was I supposed to root for this selfish person? Yet, the deeper we went, the clearer it became that Sarah was, in fact, the perfect person to juggle the con artistry involved in pretending to be people she really wasn’t, and telling people the way things were going to be even when they threatened her and her loved ones with violence. There’s a real moment toward the end of the season where she absolutely shines, and I realized that what I loved about her was that she gives orders, she does not take them. Even if sometimes those orders seemed kind of nuts.

Sarah’s confidant is her foster brother Felix, a flamboyant drug-using/dealing artist type who is, by contrast, easy to fall in love with from his first scene. Sarah is also on the run from her abusive ex, Vic, a dude you love to hate and who’s seemingly generic “bad dude ex” character starts to get more teased out and interesting as the season goes on.

As Sarah lives life as Beth, we meet her cop partner Art and his colleague Angela. Then there’s Mrs. S., Sarah’s foster mother, who’s from the UK, as is Sarah herself.

Have I mentioned that only one of these characters I’ve mentioned yet is a straight, white, North American-born person? And yes, they are all amazingly well-drawn, lovable characters who you love to love or love to hate.

And that doesn’t even touch on the clones.

orphan-black-feature

Within a few episodes, you meet Sarah’s family of clones. My favorite family of clones! You’ve got an uptight crazy soccer mom, a spunky lesbian PhD student, a red-headed German with Answers, a loopy avenging angel raised in a convent, a patsy lawyer-business clone, and so many more, I’m sure.

What got me about the clone thing is that at no point do these people feel like clones. They are their own individual people, brought to life by Maslany’s incredible acting and smart dialogue. They’ve got their own foibles, verbal and physical tics, and habits. The most delightful scenes are when the clones are forced into situations where the actress has to act like soccer mom acting like Sarah, or acting like avenging angel acting like Beth. It’s some of the most nuanced and incredible acting I’ve ever witnessed (I even shouted at one point, “THAT’S NOT SARAH!” during one particularly harrowing scene). I had the thought that this is the show Joss Whedon actually wanted to pull off when he created Doll House. But he did it with far lazier storytelling skills and an actress without the ability to pull it off.

There is not a lazy character in this entire show.

As you can imagine, Wacky Clone Hijinks ensue as the clones try and figure out why Beth killed herself, who’s trying to kill them, and who made them.

And as they go down the rabbit hole, things get curiouser and curiouser.

orphanblack_24One of the things I’ve been paying more attention to in my own work in plotting. Where’s everyone at the beginning of the work, and how do they end up? As I watched the last few episodes of Orphan Black, I watched the writers neatly execute the plot arcs for multiple clones while teasing out season finale cliffhangers to keep us ready to read – I mean, watch – season two. Book two. Whatever.

People yak on all the time about how HARD it is to write good shows that don’t insult their heroines. You hear a lot about how the “only” actors perfect for a job were white ones, and how audiences aren’t going to sympathize with a gay character. That’s all bullshit, but this show demonstrates precisely why it’s all bullshit, because instead of perpetuating that bullshit, it simply tells a fucking, rip-roaring amazing story about real people you fall in love with. Instead of showing you the same four white hetero faces clumping through the same old narrative tropes, you get varied, interesting, passionate, messed up people who have to fight their way out of shark infested waters – whether or not they know how to swim.

It’s incredible storytelling, and it’s something we need far more of.

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