TV Review | Orphan Black | Season 1
Season Summary: Orphan Black follows outsider, orphan and street-wise chameleon Sarah. After witnessing a woman's suicide, Sarah assumes the identity of the stranger — who happens to look just like her. (Orphan Black Wiki)
Just as a warning straight up-front, it's incredibly difficult to talk about this show without spoiling at least the premise of the show while discussing the plot, and actually impossible to talk about how amazing Tatiana Maslany is without revealing absolutely anything.
So, if you're like me and watching this late and not wanting to be spoiled, click the back button in your browser, follow one of the links on this page to other articles of close the tab - there be spoilers below!
With that out of the way, I'll actually stick to non-spoilery stuff to start with just to make sure, beginning with how great this show looks. I know a lot of television shows look great these days, but the cinematography here is exceptional, and honestly film quality. The angles chosen, the lighting, even the length of shots is done perfectly - not once did it feel like there were too many quick cuts or that particular shots went on too long.
The sound is a different beast altogether: I love the title song for the show, and is one of the many things about this series that reminds me of Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku's Dollhouse. The downside is the scoring for each episode, which just doesn't seem to ever stop.
Even the most mundane scenes will have some music over them and there are very few quiet moments in the score to allow the acting to shine. A couple of the musical cues for certain characters are great, but would stand out more if the score wasn't so 'crowded'.
1: "Natural Selection" suffers from similar issues to GLOW's "Pilot", in that it feels very different to the rest of the season's episodes. Until the very end, it feels a lot like a regular, but well-made, thriller with a doppelganger twist.
Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) using the death of her detective doppelganger, Beth (also Maslany) to ditch her abusive boyfriend, Vic (Michael Mando), is a neat trick, but Katja's arrival - another lookalike again played by Maslany - and immediate death feels like a twist for the sake of it with it coming in the final scene. [6/10]
2: "Instinct" is a decent follow-up, dealing with the events of the previous episode, delving more into the police side of things as Beth's partner, Art (Kevin Hanchard), forces her to deal with the hearing Beth was supposed to attend. The first signs of something bigger are seeded here when Sarah checks Katja's hotel room and finds it trashed and her card can cover the $6,000+ bill.
It's also fun to finally see Sarah have a proper conversation with yet another lookalike in Alison (played by, yep, Maslany again), a 'soccer mom' in the suburbs, especially as Sarah thinks she's a bitch. Again, there's one final twist that doesn't quite work when Sarah meets Alison a second time, who introduces another Maslany character in the form of the dread-locked Cosima. [7/10]
3: "Variation Under Nature" is where everything finally clicks and the show moves into a higher gear as Cosima reveals that all the doppelgangers are clones, which is why they're all identical. Obvious to the audience, so not a great reveal really. There's then a really nice sequence at the end with Sarah back on the force as Beth teaming with Art to track down a sniper who killed a Jane Doe - Katja.
Art is wounded and Sarah ends up chasing the attacker and being knocked down herself only to discover that the killer is another clone. This is the first reveal that really worked for me, and made an already great scene even better. [8/10]
4: "Effects of External Conditions" is another great episode thanks to the continued presence of the clone killer, who we learn is named Helena. She starts screwing with Sarah to mess with 'her' life, having wanted to originally kill Beth, which proves to be quite tense watch at times, but does start the show heading down a road of making things a little more complicated than really needed.
There's also a nice scene with Alison standing in as Sarah to visit the latter's daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler), who can somehow immediately tell that Alison isn't her mother although agrees to keep it a secret from Siobhan (played by Maria Doyle Kennedy and known as Mrs S). [8/10]
5: "Conditions of Existence" is where the show starts to wobble a little, juggling plot-lines for all of the clones and trying to keep them all tied together, while dealing with Beth's life from before the show started.
It's where the binge model of TV watching really does suffer, as there's so much going on with so many characters in different place and dealing with different situations, that only moments really work rather than anything more extended. This episode also reveals that Paul (Dylan Bruce), Beth's boyfriend, was actually observing her for a third party, but there'll be more on that below. [6/10]
6: "Variations Under Domestication" really does continue the trend started above, but the episode is saved by focusing on a party that Alison is supposed to be hosting, but Sarah has to take her place. There's a bit more humour than usual for the series so far, but this actually makes the episode stand out a little for this middle stretch of the season.
Another issue that crops up here is how much everything seems to revolve around the clones - there's no non-central plot characters or stories and this just compounds the issue of jumping around all the time. Yeah, I can see it being effective to try and throw off some of the audience maybe, but it does start to get a little frustrating. [7/10]
7: "Parts Developed in an Unusual Manner" has its moments, such as Sarah and Helena working together against those trying to control them, but is probably the uber-example of the show being complicated for the sake of it.
In a sense, it works as there's not a single episode that feels like filler material killing time to get things set up - but it instead feels like the audience is only being fed things in a piecemeal fashion because of how many characters and plots it's having to juggle at the same time. Considering the ridiculousness of seeing an actual human being with an actual tail in this episode, it's annoying how frustrating the show is becoming. [5/10]
8: "Entangled Bank" is where the show definitely bounces back, with Helena targeting Sarah's daughter and leading to a stomach-churning ending where Kira is hit by a car - on-screen - and drops limply to the ground. The tension keeps ratcheting up too, as the police start connecting the dead clones to Sarah and it feels like everything is about to come crashing down at last.
It's a really good episode, even finding time for more humour with the increasingly-paranoid Alison making some bad decisions that mess up her life. The show does still have to jump around a lot, but it all feels a little more cohesive and connected, making this the best (and most disturbing) episode so far. [9/10]
9: "Unconscious Selection" further expands the world into sci-fi territory beyond clones and people with tails, with Kira recovering almost immediately from being hit by a car, suffering no injuries. Couple this with her innate knowledge about who is who and later prediction of events to come, and there might be a little more weirdness to come.
We also see the effect the girl's accident had on Helena, who is distraught at harming an innocent - an strong change in character that works perfectly because that sight would be enough to affect anyone. This episode does suffer from a lot of moving pieces into place for the finale though and it can be a little hard to keep everything straight - if you binge watch this season, pay attention here or you might be lost for episode 10. [6/10]
10: "Endless Forms Most Beautiful" is one of the season's better episodes, mainly because there's less jumping around now that everyone and everything has been brought closer together for the finale. A lot happens, and there are a number of big revelations that seem to have been saved to keep your attention on-screen for this episode - again, pay attention here and be rewarded immensely.
There are deaths in addition to the shocks, and apparent betrayals too; to list everything major that happens would take another 1,000+ words. How good is this episode? Most plot lines are still unresolved, new ones are set up, and it ends on a cliffhanger - and it still all works. [9/10]
I've had to leave out talking about a boatload of characters like Felix (Jordan Gavaris), Delphine (Évelyne Brochu) or DeAngelis (Inga Cadranel), never mind going into depth about any of the names mentioned in the Episodes section, but this post would end up novel length if I tried to do that. Honestly, my notes for the season contained over 4,000 words already before writing this near-2,000 word post.
The only person really worth talking about is Tatiana Maslany as Sarah and all the other clones, giving multiple fantastic performances giving each of them a unique speaking style, body language and personality that a lot of actors can't give even one character.
The work required to get two characters in the same scene and making them distinct from each other is frankly incredible and I'm glad she eventually got rewarded for her performances. I will say that her English accent isn't too hot though - if Sarah gets killed at some point as a major shock, I certainly won't be sad to hear it go.
One thing I did mention repeatedly is how much the show jumps around, which is a definite issue. With no filler episodes, it actually means you have to pay attention which could be an issue for a lot of the shorter attention spans a large number of people seem to have these days. I didn't really have too many problems going on, but I had my attention on the show all the time, which is probably why.
Saying that, paying attention to everything does ruin what feel like should be shocks or surprises thanks to the foreshadowing. Is it poor writing making it a little too obvious or the creators of the show hoping that people might not be able to keep track of everything when watching for long periods of time and their attention wanders? I hope it's the latter.
As examples, I suspected Paul wasn't exactly who he appeared to be from episode 1 and was proven right. Delphine's duplicity was obvious from her first appearance. Despite everything that happened, I never stopped suspecting Alison's husband was involved in some way and was right there as well.
There are numerous other moments that play out as if they're grand reveals, but simply provided exactly what I was expecting, so maybe don't pay so much attention and you'll experience more eye-openers.
Orphan Black's first season is enjoyable if uneven. At times, it does feel like it's ambitions are a little too far out of reach, but it tries admirably and Maslany's performances are absolutely stellar. It's high points definitely make me look forward to future seasons; I just hope that the plots are a little tidier from here on out.