“Orphan” is the new black

Sorry, “Game of Thrones.” I apologize, “Breaking Bad.” Nice try, “The Walking Dead.” None of you were my favorite shows of 2013. That prestigious award goes to the one, the only, a show you, dear reader, have likely never even heard of but should absolutely be watching, “Orphan Black.”

The BBC America sci-fi masterpiece aired its first season from March to June of last year and quickly reeled me in with its loveable, complex characters, undeniable wit and intense cliffhangers. My only complaint is that the season only lasted 10 episodes. But, the series is far from over; season two premieres April 19 at 9 p.m.

I could easily and happily launch into a novel-length article now, citing at least 100 reasons you should watch “Orphan Black,” but, in the interest of saving space, here are three highlights. And before you cry out that you don’t have BBC America and cannot possibly watch, have no fear. Google Play, iTunes, Amazon Prime and Xbox Live also offer it.

There’re clones.
“Orphan Black” is about clones. Some readers might accuse me of having just given away a massive spoiler as this fact is hinted at, but not revealed, until the start of the second episode. Yet, avoiding the word “clones” in this article would be as bizarre as avoiding the word “mob” when discussing “The Sopranos” or never uttering the words “plane crash” in a blog post about “Lost.” Clones are so entirely woven into the fabric and premise of “Orphan Black” that any premise or summary of the show, no matter how short, will surely feature the word several times.

And it’s a wonderful thing. The clone club, as the ladies occasionally call themselves, isn’t composed of several unoriginal women, identical in personality and thought. They are clones solely by DNA, not even identical in looks, as they all rock drastically different hairstyles, makeup and fashions. One has a short sleek bob and proudly wears expensive suits that seem to come from the “Devil Wears Prada” set, and another sports brunette dreadlocks and quirky Forever 21-type outfits. There’s also an uptight soccer mom, a feral religion-obsessed criminal, and a sharp-witted police detective. The clone awarded the most amount of screen time, though not quite enough to be considered the undeniable lead, is Sarah Manning, a street-wise con woman hailing from the U.K.

Tatiana Maslany is the Meryl Streep of TV.
With the dizzying array of clothing and wigs, it’s easy to forget that the clones are all played by the same person, not a squad of outrageously talented quintuplets. Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany may not have the name recognition of Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts, but she deserves at least 10 Emmy Awards — the number of clones revealed in season one. Each woman is portrayed so vibrantly and with so much complexity that even if the show were about just a single one — any one — she’d deserve to be showered with awards.

Maslany doesn’t just let the costume, makeup or wig departments do the work for her; she drastically transforms herself to play each clone, complete with unique hand gestures and postures. I swear she even breathes differently. Oh, and did I not mention the accents? From British to Canadian, American, Ukrainian and German, she’s managed to convince me that at least half-a-dozen inflections are her natural voice. And when one clone impersonates another, a frequent occurrence with typically hilarious results, she lets her accent sound slightly less than perfect. For example, Canadian Alison sounds as if she’s faking a British accent to impersonate the U.K.-born Sarah.

Though Maslany has many delightful co-stars — most notably Jordan Gavaris as Sarah’s foster brother and best friend Felix — her best acting partner is herself. The clones frequently interact with each other, and not in lame split screens that would make the special effects seem rather unimpressive. No, the clones fully interact as if they’re separate people, hugging, sharing meals and even getting in physical brawls. Behind-the-scenes features and interviews, which are almost as entertaining as the show itself, reveal that these technical feats are achieved through shots of Maslany interacting alongside thin air and, sometimes, a body double, a role that is now my dream job.

It’s realistic.
Yes, that’s right; I just called a sci-fi thriller realistic. The world of “Orphan Black” isn’t inhibited by aliens, mind readers or time travel devices. Although it involves a few sci-fi elements, in addition to cloning, they all revolve around realistic technological advances, like bizarre plastic surgeries, not werewolves, witches or flying cars. Plus, the characters react with appropriate shock over the discovery of these elements. Human cloning isn’t presented as perfectly normal. As one of the British clones might say, it’s bloody bonkers.

But “Orphan Black” isn’t just realistic in the sense of being scientifically plausible. The characters and their quirks are completely relatable, too. The clone that I described earlier as an “uptight soccer mom” is far more than a cliché or stock character; beneath Alison’s sunny, musical-theater-loving demeanor lies a wild side, full of anxieties and devious thoughts.

Dreadlocked Cosima isn’t a lazy hippie; she’s a doctoral microbiology student with a love for evolutionary theories and flirting. Each clone may be easy to label within the first two minutes of her first appearance, but each scene that follows tears down those stereotypes.

But what perhaps excites me most about the show is that it goes against the stereotype of its genre labels. It’s not just a sci-fi, drama or thriller. It’s also a comedy. I find many sci-fi flicks and shows boring and unrelatable because the characters never take a moment to laugh or joke about the ridiculous circumstances they’ve found themselves in. “Orphan Black” does. As sick, twisted and horrifying as human cloning may be, it’s also ripe for comedy. “Orphan Black” recognizes that and uses it. It may not be as laugh-out-loud hilarious as “Arrested Development” or “The Office,” but when the jokes come, typically several brilliant ones per episode, they offer a delightfully refreshing break from the show’s overall frightening, tragic tone.

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