The Latecomer's Guide to 'Orphan Black,' the TV Phenomenon You Probably Missed

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Orphan Black, BBC America's show about a group of clones, came and went largely without notice  at the end of March, but there's a renewed fascination with the show, along with a burgeoning Emmy campaign for its star, Tatiana Maslany. We, admittedly, are latecomers, but have since binge-watched the series, and consider us converts. And we want to convert you, too. 

So why did I miss this? 

Well, for one thing, it's on BBC America, which, even if it's actually in your cable package, is probably sitting somewhere in the high numbers between Nat Geo Wild and nuovoTV. Another reason? Lots of people did not like it very much when it first aired. (Though some definitely did.) Matt Zoller Seitz of New York wrote: "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." The New York Times review from Neil Genzlinger was fine, but understated. But what started out as a meh show on a hard-to-find cable network sort of just crept on the people who stuck with it. As the Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan wrote, it's "one of the stealth surprises of the year." 

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But it's catching on? 

It was a slow build, but the show's fans now even have their own hashtag the "#CloneClub." A bunch of media folks also jumped on the Orphan Black train. Back in May Kate Aurthur of BuzzFeed, one of the show's champions, wrote a post titled "If You Are Not Watching 'Orphan Black,' You Are Crazy." After belatedly catching up with the show in late May, The Awl's Choire Sicha began tubthumping for an Emmy for Maslany. And just last week Vulture had the showrunners  Graeme Manson and John Fawcett answer reader questions and Entertainment Weekly held a "support group" for binge-watchers.  

Okay, okay. What's the show about? 

We'll try to be spoiler free: the story focuses on Sarah Manning, a British grifter who steals the identity of a woman she witnesses jump in front of the train. The woman happens to mysteriously look just like her. As Manning gets deeper into this woman's world, she realizes there's a reason they look alike: they are clones. Hence, star Tatiana Maslany plays a bunch of different clone characters. 

So if Sarah is British and it's on BBC America does it take place in England? 


Where does it take place? 

That's a good question. It's never explicitly identified, but the show is shot in Toronto and doesn't obscure the license plates which say "Ontario." Some of the cast have English accents and bunch of others have American/Canadian accents. That said, in the initial episode, there's a mention of "New York," but they don't use dollars for money. So it's a bit jarring. In real life the show is a very Canadian operation, and is co-produced by the Toronto-based Temple Street Productions.

I think I can get over that. Back to this Tatiana Maslany person: Why is everyone raving about her? 

Maslany is being heralded as the proverbial next big thing and she really is quite amazing. The notion that she is playing all these different characters goes away rather quickly—aside from the fact that, yes, they all have the same face. There are scenes wherein Maslany is playing two or three different clones interacting, and only after the scenes are over do you realize that Maslany was in fact talking to herself. For some of the clones the transformation is more drastic. Her Helena, a crazy Ukrainian, is obviously going to be different than her Alison, an uptight soccer mom with a North American accent. But her Alison carries herself vastly differently than her Cosima, who speaks with a Berkeley lilt. 

In the Emmy race, Maslany is everyone's favorite underdog. She bested the likes of Claire Danes and Julianna Margulies at the Critics' Choice Awards. (Note the confused look on Eric Stonestreet's face in the video at that link.) Now there's a major Emmy campaign underway. Aurthur published another story in which the likes of Patton Oswalt and Damon Lindelof sang her praises. 

I get it, she's great, how's the rest of the show? 

Another reason so many people didn't buy in immediately was that the series takes a while to get going. The pilot is on the slow side, but once the show gets going around the third episode, it is can't-stop-watching television. Sure there are some holes here and there—some of which are cleared up as the show progress, others which are not—but there is enough mystery to be solved and constant twists and turns to keep you riveted. And, despite its title, it is not completely dark. There are moments of humor in the story, especially thanks to Maslany's wit and Jordan Gavaris who plays Felix, a gay artist who is Sarah's foster brother. It's also at times gruesome, and a little perverse. There's something for everyone. 

Will I be heartbroken if I watch this and then there's no other season?

No! It's already back for season two.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.