Friday, June 28, 2013

Orphan Black--no-spoilers review

If ever a TV show needed a no-spoilers review it's this one. The trouble is, everything's a spoiler when "Orphan Black" is concerned, and the less you know going in, the more fun you'll have with this show's onrushing tidal wave of plot twists and turns.

So--what can I tell you that will let you know whether you want to see this or not without spilling all those beans? Well, I'll try.

1. Don't see this if you need glossy, upbeat Hollywoody science fiction. There isn't a single Dudly Do-Right in the entire cast of characters. Everyone has issues. Everyone has baggage. Problems can't always be solved by sweet reason, Star Trek style. And who's a Good Guy or a Bad Guy isn't always clear, even when you learn just who and what they are. And with some of the more damaged characters, they can't necessarily be fixed--ever. Some things you can't come back from. And problems don't have quick fixes. That is, there's no pandering to your inner 12 year old. This is a show for grown-ups.

There is hope, and character growth, and goodness--but not unmixed, and not come by easily. Think about Egon Schindler of Schindler's List--a womanizer, war profiteer, Nazi collaborator--who also saved over 900 Jews. He'd fit right in here.

2. Don't see this if you have to have a saintly, lovable central character who always does the right thing without hesitation. If you're the kind of person who likes to sit in judgement of others, and who thinks nothing in a person's upbringing/environment can excuse anything wrong they do, skip Orphan Black. There's no black and white morality to be had here.

3. Skip this if you need your science fiction to be 100% scientifically plausible. The basic premise for the show isn't possible in the timeframe of the show (it's set in present-day Toronto). I forgive the show for this--it would have made the show too expensive to produce if it had been set 40 years in the future. And the show is so character-driven that that this flaw is overshadowed by the rest of it anyway.

4. This has moments of sex, violence and bad language that aren't outside the envelope of today's television, but it sure ain't "Little House on the Prairie" or a Hallmark Special either. And the general intensity level is HIGH. A Russian friend of mine thought it was overacted, but she's the kind of person who expects characters to always respond to events optimally--which I see as a holdover of the "Soviet Realism" she was raised on--where every show is expected to function as straightforward moral instruction. This show has a moral center, but it doesn't wear it on its sleeve.

5. See this if you loved the best of Hitchcock's movies--scary, intelligent, suspenseful, sometimes white-knuckly, more fear, less gore. Don't see this if a little gore is too much for you, though. There's a scene of self-surgery that's rather stomach-churning, though it isn't gratuitous. And it's not the only Ewwww! moment in the show. Forewarned is forearmed.

6. See this if you admire great--not good, great--acting. The show's star, 28 year old Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany, from Regina, Saskatchewan, won the Critics' Choice award for Best Actress in a TV Drama (the drama being Orphan Black), dumbfounding all the Hollywood Establishment types who perhaps hadn't even heard of this show.

I love great stars like Audrey Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, who cultivate an onscreen persona and mostly play that throughout their careers. Maslany is a different kind of actor--the kind who can play ANYONE. The kind who can disappear into a role so deeply you forget the actor and only see the character they're playing. She's an actor's actor, like Alec Guinness was. Maslany plays multiple roles in Orphan Black, and in each role she's that person--character, mannerisms, dialect, everything. You're never unclear as to which character you're looking at--including when she's playing one of her characters pretending to be another of her characters.

Acting schools will have their students watch Orphan Black to see how it should be done. James Lipton will be camping on Maslany's doorstep to get her on his Actor's Studio interview show.

The other characters are well-acted too--particularly the young man who plays the central character's brother. I've seen him in interviews and he's nothing like his character. And it's a role that could have been overplayed; instead it's given a nuanced performance by this actor.

7. See it if you like mysteries that gradually answer your questions, without copouts. This isn't like "Lost," where the final resolution of the plot left most viewers going "Seriously?" Not here. You'll have a lot of questions, and you'll get a gradual stream of answers--though many lead to more questions, but those get answered too, and so forth.

8. See this if you prefer serialized shows; don't see this if you insist on episodic shows. That is, the first season of Orphan Black is a 430 minute movie. Don't even think of seeing it any other way. You'll be lost, and not in a good way.

9. See this if you like to pay attention. Don't try to play this while you're doing a crossword puzzle. You'll miss something important.

10. Humor: not much. There are frequent light touches, but mostly it's a drama, and a drama on the white-knuckle side of things. Called it fast-paced is an understatement. My spouse and I returned from our honeymoon in Japan on the last airliner out of Tokyo before they closed the airport due to an incoming typhoon. On our takeoff roll the rain was blowing horizontally. One we were airborne that fully-loaded 747 bounced around as if it was a little Cesna 152. The passengers were audibly gasping in unison every time that huge airplane abruptly dropped a few dozen feet.

Orphan Black moves like that.

As I said, the show is set in the present day. The science fiction aspects are real but don't involve the visual props of most sci-fi--no space ships, no aliens, no time travel, no teleporting, really very little requiring CGI other than what's needed to put Maslany on the screen in several places at one time. I can think of one little thing, but you only see it briefly and I'd have to give you a spoiler to tell you more.

This means that people who don't go for the really futuristic stuff might like this one. On the other hand, those who love the futuristic stuff might question whether this is really sci-fi (it is, though).
I hope I've told you enough to get you to see the pilot--provided none of my cautions are a problem for you. I watch way too much TV for my own good, and I've found myself looking forward to the next episode--and season--more than almost any other show I've seen. Right up there with Game of Thrones, only on a miniscule fraction of the budget. And the fact that it delivers so much bang for the budget impresses me, though strictly speaking I suppose I shouldn't give it credit for that.
If you need to find out what the plot is, read any of the other reviews here. But I urge you not to. See the pilot. Then come back here and read them.

If you want to calibrate your tastes against mine, here are some sci-fi shows I've liked:
Babylon 5
Doctor Who (the reboot, not the old series)
Red Dwarf
Star Trek (and Next Gen but not so much Voyager or Deep Space Nine)

Moviewise I'm reminded a bit of Let Me In/Let the Right One In, even though they aren't science fiction but rather fantasy. But they also have that gritty, realistic quality that's so missing from so much sci-fi/fantasy.

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