Update: Orphan Black Season 2 is also available on Netflix UK.
Are some TV shows simply not suitable for binge-viewing? Orphan Black, like many modern series, drip-feeds mystery through one question: “What is going on?” Essentially, what is going on is that Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) has just assumed the identity of her own doppelganger, Beth, following Beth’s suicide. Hoping to capitalise on Beth’s lifestyle – or at least abandon her own – Sarah makes discoveries that ensure life can never be simple for her again. Uncovering a growing conspiracy of doppelgangers and hunted by a hooded assassin, she very quickly has to decide whom she can trust.
And therein lies one of the show’s main problems. In the present, Sarah is on the run, avoiding her drug-dealing ex, convincing Beth’s boyfriend and co-workers that she’s her, and continuing to find clues as to what is going on. But the premise of the show forces Sarah – and the others – to delve into the past. To find people on the inside of the conspiracy – the bad guys – and learn the truth. All of the action, the fascination and the thrill centres on the doppelgangers and their creation. A quarter of a century later, when they start being murdered, the question isn’t “Will Beth’s co-workers notice Sarah’s lies?” because they won’t. And, if they do, she’ll get away unscathed. The questions – the real, big questions – all exist in the past. And that mystery is solved in infuriating baby steps to keep the audience tuning in every seven days.
With Orphan Black’s episodic revelations and dingy anonymity, watching one a week could prove explosive and intense, but as it arrives on Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video, where binge-viewing is common, watching one after another merely reduces the show to uneven twists and unprogressive plot trends. Instead of moving forwards, the show’s struggle into the past is burdened with short-lived filler and glimpses of conspirators that could antagonise a binge viewer.
The series itself might do the same. Orphan Black raises interesting questions about identity, but rarely braves beyond the superficial regarding the doppelgangers’ collective crises. It is a dark sci-fi, but seldom ranges beyond the most basic problems and does very little in the way of original character writing. The potentially excellent premise for an explorative, scientific, philosophical review of humanity is crippled by predictable dialogue, one-dimensional secondary characters and an overly active need for tension.
Tatiana Maslany’s work ethic is the one part of the show that cannot be questioned. She stars in three (Four? Five? Six?) pivotal roles and subtly differentiates them from each other enough to keep us aware of events, even during Episode 6’s ‘musical identity chairs’ suburban house party. She does a respectable job as protagonist Sarah and her newfound comrades, in spite of her ever-wavering accent. Her co-stars remain on sturdy ground too – decent performances of occasionally tedious characters – while the VFX department effortlessly conquer the task of filming her multiple times in any single scene.
Its actual production is solid enough. Nothing too flashy, nothing too experimental: Orphan Black is a show relying on its subject matter to carry it into greatness. As it aired traditionally on TV, viewers could soak up the mystery and complicated character relay, but now it has entered binge territory, its every twist holds a little less weight than the one viewed 45 minutes ago. Orphan Black watched with any degree of dedication reveals its fundamental flaw: it’s nowhere near dark enough to challenge major moral perceptions. For a show about the uniqueness of any given life, it’s rarely inventive and mostly skin deep.
Are some TV shows therefore simply not suitable for binge-viewing? If Orphan Black’s smart premise does intrigue you, our advice is this: sip at it slowly.
Orphan Black Season 1 is on Netflix UK as part of a monthly subscription of £6.99 – and on Amazon Prime Instant Video with a monthly subscription of £5.99.
Photo: BBC/Orphan Black Productions Limited / BBC WORLDWIDE/Steve Wilkie