Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Orphan Black: Dead Ringers

Technically, she is the doppelganger taking over someone else's life.  When Sarah sees her exact double commit suicide, she lifts the woman’s purse and wallet.  The very recently deceased is much better dressed, after all.  However, when she temporarily assumes the dead woman’s identity, she gets considerably more than she bargained for in the opening episode of BBC America’s Orphan Black (promo here), which premieres this coming Saturday evening.

Angry and irresponsible, Sarah carries the baggage of a childhood spent entirely in the foster-care system.  She wants to begin a new life with Felix, her foster-brother, and her daughter Kira, whom she has not had custody of in some time (and for good reason).  Her dubious idea of a fresh start involves stealing some inferior grade cocaine from her pseudo-psycho-boyfriend for Felix to sell.  Then she sees Beth throw herself in front of a train.

Making her way to Beth’s pad, Sarah finds out where her accounts are.  She only intends to stay long enough to clean them out.  Naturally, things do not go according to plan.  It turns out Beth was a cop, facing a disciplinary hearing for a questionable shooting.  Of course, Sarah has no inkling what really went down.  She is also somewhat at a loss for words when Beth’s romantic interest returns early from a business trip.  It seems rather obvious, but Felix has to remind her she and Beth are probably connected in some way that could give her clues to her own past.  Gee, you don’t suppose any more apparent twins might show up?

Essentially, Orphan is like a combination of Cinemax’s Banshee and Fox’s late but not terribly lamented John Doe.  If the latter doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry about it.  At least, Orphan starts with a jolt.  It is not exactly Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, but the tightly staged and edited train station sequence is undeniably grabby.  The first episode also has a promising grittiness.  Viewers can readily accept Tatiana Maslany’s Sarah and Jordan Gavaris’s Felix are damaged people long accustomed to operating on the fringes of polite society.

Unfortunately, by the time the first episode’s mystery guest shows up, a familiar pattern begins to emerge.  It is all too easy to foresee a covert government laboratory and a parade of sketchy informers in Orphan’s future.  Frankly, we have been down that road many times in the past and it almost invariably leads nowhere.

It is impossible to render a final critical judgment on the basis of only one episode, but viewers do just that all the time.  Orphan assembles a reasonably strong cast, but in service of a so-so premise.  It might be a passable distraction, but it is nowhere near as entertaining as Banshee, with which it apparently shares some superficial cop-impersonating plot elements.  Perhaps it will grow on genre fans when it takes its place in BBC America’s “Supernatural Saturday” (3/30) this weekend.