Why you shouldn’t miss Orphan Black

Season 1 of Canadian sci-fi thriller Orphan Black starts tonight on BBC Three. Here's a spoiler-free look at why it's worth your time...

Alongside succulent main courses like Breaking Bad, TV diets require a bit of frivolous colour, a fun bag of Pic ‘n’ Mix to throw down your neck and give you a heady E number rush. Imperial downfalls and complex tragedies are one thing, but every so often, it does you good to watch a charismatic actress don a series of wigs and accents to fight bad guys, retrieve evidence-packed briefcases, and investigate why all of a sudden everyone wants her dead.

That’s what Orphan Black will give you, and a great deal more besides if the steady increase in quality during the first few episodes continues. For those determined to engage their brains, there’s scientific ethics and developmental biology food for thought aplenty once things get motoring (impress your friends with the clutch of Darwin quotes used as episode titles). On the whole though, you’ll be too busy being entertained for chin-stroking philosophy. This is instant gratification TV.

A BBC America/Space co-production, series one of Orphan Black aired in Canada and the US earlier this year to acclaim.Arriving in the UK today, Graeme Manson and John Fawcett’s drama joins In the Flesh and the ghost of Being Human as a geek show on BBC Three that’s well worth your time.

In it, Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany stars as English tearaway Sarah, a young mother with a troubled past who returns to her adoptive home to retrieve the daughter she left there a year earlier. Sarah’s long-time partner in (often literal) crime is foster brother Felix (fellow Canadian Jordan Gavaris), who brings comic relief and – it should be said – gay stereotypes to proceedings.

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Without giving the game away, Orphan Black combines spy thriller elements with police procedural conventions and sci-fi drama. It’s funny, pacey, and a showcase for the inestimable talents of lead Maslany, whose job on the show is – how best to say it – a challenge she rises to meet. It really is an extraordinary performance, and to quite what an extent isn’t revealed until at least episode three.

If you’re sensitive to accents, granted, you may need a few deep breaths to get you through episode one, which features some English vowels to rival Frasier’s Moon family. Sail past that though, and the story will keep you busy enough to distract from any clangers. Being fair, it’s nothing worse than you’d hear on an episode of Eastenders. Stick with it, is what we’re saying, and you’ll be rewarded for your patience.

As a protagonist, Sarah’s no vampire slayer, kick-ass spy, or preternaturally gifted thingummy. Her very unsuitability for dealing with what befalls her provides many of Orphan Black’s lighter moments. She’s not a great fighter, but she’s called upon to fight. When circumstances conspire to make Sarah impersonate a cop, how rubbish she is at it is all part of the fun.

As a female-led thriller, you could say Orphan Black fills the Alias and – in its moments of black comedy – Veronica Mars gap in the TV schedules. You might also bring up Dollhouse, but then why be cruel? We’re staying as spoiler-free as possible, but should mention that the series goes on to pass the ‘do two women talk to one another about something other than a man?’ Bechdel test in a satisfyingly unusual way. Admittedly, Maslany is seen walking around in her underwear more than is strictly required for the plot, but it’s worth noting that Orphan Black is an equal opportunities perv. For every side boob and knickers shot of Maslany, there are an equal number of male bum cheeks and torsos on display.

Another similarity with Veronica Mars is that Orphan Black thankfully doesn’t take itself too seriously. It has a sense of peppy, kitschy humour, and a Luther-ish taste for heightened crime clichés and schlocky serial killer conventions. Lunatics with angel wings carved into their back, beheaded Barbie dolls and biblical quotes daubed onto walls are part and parcel of its exaggerated world.

Its creators affectionately refer to Orphan Black as a “wacky little [redacted] show”, and they’re not wrong. It cherry-picks clichés and conventions from across genres, combining them to create a show that’s fun, surprising, and extremely more-ish. Tune in and see what I mean; it’s geek TV Pick ‘n’ Mix.

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Orphan Black series one begins with a double-bill on BBC Three on Friday the 20th of September (episode one is already available on BBC iPlayer). Come back after broadcast for our spoiler-filled review.

Orphan Black is available on iTunes, here.

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