Plot is the story being told. Annie Hall‘s (Woody Allen, USA 1977) plot is that two people meet, have a tumultuous relationship in which they fall and break up numerous times, and then finally break up for good. Narrative is the way the story is told. In Annie Hall, it is told through a series of vignettes from throughout the relationship and even some flashbacks to before then all based on the mind of lead character Alvie Singer. It’s a simple plot with a very complex narrative that confuses some viewers but otherwise keeps the film from falling into predictability.
Orphan Black takes the reverse approach. The series starts with a bizarre, complex plot about a company that creates a series of clones for some sort of long-term experiment (the specifics of which still elude us) who begin to discover their own identity as clones. However, to tell its story, it uses a very simple narrative that follows events chronologically, not giving us flashbacks or even simultaneous actions and consistently following one of the clone characters.
Further, it gives us a series of memorably different characters who make things easier to follow, and it succeeds in this part largely because of how incredible lead actress Tatiana Maslany is. Sure, the changes in hair and makeup do a lot to differentiate the characters, but her differences in voice/accent, mannerisms, and facial expressions are also powerful elements that separate each character. We have Sarah, the streetwise criminal who is swept up in everything just as she is trying to put her life back together around her young daughter–she’s smart and rather vicious, a dangerous but useful combination that leads her to push the story forward every step of the way. And then we have Cosima Niehaus, a brilliant biology graduate student at the University of Minnesota (I would like to imagine that she’s actually at the University of Minnesota-Morris so that the evolutionary biology specialist is actually studying under the great P.Z. Myers!) whose technical expertise makes her an incredible asset and whose social skills leave something to be desired. Then we have Helena, a crazed religious nut out to wipe out all of her clones as “abominations.” They’re all memorable and all distinct even though they share enough characteristics that it’s believable that they are clones. Even the supporting characters, like Sarah’s foster brother Felix, are memorable, and they make it easier to enter into the strange world in which the show exists. Once again, it’s a very smart idea that lets the show get away with its outrageous premise.
Visually, the show is nothing special. I often say that Breaking Bad is the only visually interesting show I’ve ever seen, and Orphan Black does nothing to change that. It does a decent job of covering for what seems to be a limited budget by not writing itself into places where a larger budget would be necessary but every once in a while it pops up in the show’s visual aspect, giving us some low quality effects or backgrounds.
Overall, Orphan Black is a smart, well-written show in its first season that is held together by Tatiana Maslany giving an incredible performance in the lead to rival any TV performance this side of Bryan Cranston. It’s definitely worth a watch, and I’m sticking to it in the future.
This review is coming out short no matter how much time I spend on it, because the simple truth is that it’s a plot-driven show and spelling out the nuances of the plot here would be boring. I still suggest watching, nonetheless.