Tatiana Maslany stars in "Orphan Black." (Steve Wilkie, BBC America )
Theater has always been enamored with actors in multiple roles, whether it's "Twelfth Night's" Viola/Cesario or Jeremy Irons' creepy "Dead Ringers." And ever since Toni Collette won an Emmy for her identity dissociative suburban housewife, TV writers have been dutifully churning out plus-sized characters — most recently "Do No Harm," "Ringer," "My Own Worst Enemy" — for performers looking to expand their repertoire.
Most bomb with alarming rapidity because no matter how splendid the actor, doubling down is a big risk — the contrast between two characters often reveals the tics of performance, keeping us at arm's length from the story. More alarming is the potential silliness factor, especially should any of the characters require extreme personalities, weird hair or accents of any kind.
Which is why it is important to stick with "Orphan Black," a new sci-fi-ish thriller premiering on BBC America, even though the first couple of episodes are tonally odd and narratively confusing.
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Although the essentials of John Fawcett and Graeme Manson's story are not new — a young woman discovers she is part of an international conspiracy/science experiment — "Orphan Black" takes on cloning, which gives it a very high difficulty rating, and around here we give big points for that.
Monochromatically urban with requisite glowering skies (it's set in Toronto), "Orphan Black" opens rather ridiculously with Sarah (Tatiana Maslany), an angry young Brit, hanging fretfully around a train station just in time to see her doppelgänger commit suicide. Clearly living the marginal life (note dark hoodie and street swagger), Sarah quickly picks up the woman's bag, finds her apartment and is soon on her way to leveraging the resemblance, at least long enough to empty the dead woman's bank account.
Wisely, Fawcett and Manson give Sarah a sympathetic motive — she just wants the money so she can be reunited with her young daughter — and a fabulous best friend in gay foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), who is on hand to provide both ambient fabulousness, common sense and whatever logistical aid is required. His performance provides the high points of the pilot.
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As luck, and narrative device, would have it, the dead woman, Beth, was a police officer with many problems of her own, including but not limited to the fact that she is a clone.
Yes, that's right, as the early episodes roll out, Sarah finds herself surrounded by different versions of herself — German punk, soccer mom, science geek. None of them knows quite what's going on except that someone appears to be killing them one by one. Beth was secretly using police department resources to find out who. Which means that, like it or not, Sarah as Beth has to stay on the force.
It's just as ridiculous as it sounds, chockablock with clichés, predictable exposition (two taps of the keyboard and entire histories are revealed) and some fairly whacked-out plot twists. But it doesn't matter because "Orphan Black" isn't so much about plot as it is performance, and as the series continues (BBC America sent out four episodes), the performances are pretty astonishing.
Although there are some regrettable Russian/German accents involved, they belong, mercifully, to clones in passing. Between the three main identicals, Maslany shape-shifts with near-miraculous believability, becoming by turns the tough and narcissistic Sarah, the high-strung, multi-tasking mom Alison and the brilliant but sensible Cosmina.
As an added bonus, the show's take on the assumed identity issue, while still not technically believable, is as convincing as it gets. Sarah is not one of those genetically determined super-agents, so her mistakes with police procedure add a splash of humor, and a scene in which, clearly terrified, she must pursue an armed assailant is nerve-jangling in its realism. It's one thing to learn how to shoot a gun at a target, it's another to face a potential gun fight.
More compelling is the über journey of the main character as she, quite literally, finds herself and learns to take responsibility. Again, not a terribly fresh through line, but the show's ability to use cloning as not just MacGuffin but also metaphor — who are any of us, really? — lifts "Orphan Black" out of its various genres and into a potentially new realm altogether.
Where: BBC America
When: 6 and 9 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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