TV today, embarrassment of riches, hubbub hubbub, Golden Age — but my god for the love of all that's Bechdel everyone should be watching and losing their feminist-leaning minds over Orphan Black right now. What if I told you there is a femmed-up ass-kicker about clones with the campy dark humor of Heathers that's feminist in its bones and also riveting and fun, plus pulls off all the things people say female-led shows don't do? Face, naysayers! Face. Clone face. Because clones. Burn!
For anyone unaware: Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) is a twentysomething crust punk ne'er-do-well who, upon the show's open, comes across a woman in the subway about to jump to her death. Moments before, she sees the woman's face and it happens to look exactly like hers. In a scrambling effort to ditch her abusive, drug-peddler of a boyfriend Vic and get financially stable, Manning steals the dead lookalike's identity, which turns out to be that of Beth Childs, a cop with a hot boyfriend and sweet pad, whom Manning soon discovers is her clone.
As season one unfolds, we learn that Beth is just one of many of Sarah's genetic identicals out there — first rule of clone club is don't say clone — each with a unique personality, look, identity, accent, hairstyle, you name it. Maslany plays all of these gals with virtuosic aplomb while navigating crimes, misdemeanors, shadowy corporate overlords, and more, and not only is the show somehow not confusing at all, it's hilarious, thrilling, and good plain fun. Also: When Maslany is playing a clone who is pretending to be another clone, you will have to pause the show just to marvel at how brilliant she is. (So brilliant that fans organized to give her their own award when she got snubbed for an Emmy.)
So what makes the show so great?
It's cheesy — in the best way.
I don't like sci-fi really — mainly I'm just not good at that kind of suspension of disbelief, making it hard to get into characters when premises feel really hokey, and they so often do. Orphan Black dodges this impeccably: One, it has a great sense of humor, cracking silly about identity mix-ups that prove they are in on the joke of how absurd such premises can be. Slate TV critic Willa Paskin called it "B TV" as a nod to its unabashed goofiness, but to me, this trait absolutely saves the show from itself.
Two, because we see the evolving world through Manning's eyes, we can share in her character's eye-rolling skepticism about cloning and lunatics and religious fundies, while sympathizing with her totally relatable instinct to survive, make ends meet, and figure out who she is and where she's from — whether the "she" is the misfit, the stoner lesbian scientist, the suburban craft mom, or the nutjob.
Three — the mythology of the show — Proletheans who are anti-cloning, transhumanism, body modification freaks (yes, there is something about growing a tail) — doesn't seem that far off, and here it's handled with a wicked sense of humor that has just enough of a foot in the door of reality to not seem that crazy.
It's about more than clones.
It's about identity, about a young woman trying to grow up, and how we define family. Manning and her sisters don't always make good choices, and they aren't always likeable. In a post about how much audiences need a show like Orphan Black right now, Audra Schroder at the Daily Dot notes that the first season could have been its last because its topics — clones, genetic engineering — have been "explored to the point of caricature." But she thinks maybe the fact that it's about women is what saved it:
At the heart of Orphan Black is a search for identity, and the storylines are moved along by actress Tatiana Maslany, who, throughout the first season, portrays Sarah Manning as well as clones Beth, Helena, Cosima, Alison, Rachel, and Katja. All of these clones have different personalities, accents, and demeanors; one is an evolutionary biologist, one is a cop, one is an ex-religious cult member; one is a mother and would-be actress; one is the head of a shadowy corporation.
We don't often see this many angles of the prism.
The show has its cake and eats it, too.
Here's the simplest way I can put it: It's like a show you'd normally expect to be written with dudes (it was written BY them), except written with women. It relishes in violence, action, intrigue, suspense, sex (for men and women) and sexuality (for hetero and queer) — a kind of Bourne Identity but with women, gays, clones and jokes.
However, it does one better than that, by not being afraid to explore the relationships inherent to the clone sisterhood. When Manning-as-Childs takes up residence as a cop in her new apartment and learns she has a new, very hot ex-military boyfriend, she rolls with it, right into bed with him. More than once. Later, Manning semi-laments her choice to hook up with him to the other clones, but not because it was slutty to fuck Paul or like sex or continue a sexual relationship when you may have no other connection with someone, but because of the sense that she was betraying Beth nagged at her.
The show has been called "brilliantly misandrist."
Many feminists are delighting in the show's flipped script of meaningful female characters versus less-than-meaningful male ones. On tumblr, hershotsonher writes:
not only does orphan black eat the bechdel test for breakfast lunch and dinner but it abysmally fails the reverse bechdel test
there are literally like three instances in the entire series where two men speak to each other about something other than a woman
what more reason do you need to watch this fucking show
In a piece I haven't stopped thinking about since I read it, Jessica Roake over at Slate argues that the male characters on Orphan Black are flat on purpose, and that this is its own long-overdue reward for female viewers. Initially, there's Manning's best friend, the snarky sidekick/foster brother Felix, there's Beth Child's partner on the force, the scowling Art Bell (does anyone assume this guy is named after the paranormal enthusiast/radio host of the same name?), and Beth's boyfriend Paul. After years, Roake writes, of watching breathlessly praised shows full of richly developed male characters, it's "perversely thrilling" to see two-dimensional male characters play reactive, "sexy, empty listeners":
Orphan Black is all about a woman, Sarah, and her many, many clones (all played by Tatiana Maslany), so it's no surprise that the male characters are secondary to the plot. But the men aren't simply less important to the story than the women. They are less than, full stop. With one exception, the male characters of Orphan Black are purposefully insubstantial, bordering on feeble. This gender reversal is not an accident on the part of the show's creators, Graeme Manson and John Fawcett; it's clearly a conscious decision, and it effectively delivers the show's most potent message about the nature, quality, and persistence of the enemy.
Later, she writes:
Orphan Black's straight men are among the stupidest and least riveting fictional creatures to populate the modern television landscape. After years of suffering through completely unrecognizable female characters on TV, it's hard not to celebrate the show's almost gleeful denigration of its straight male characters. Orphan Black's creators are not interested in speaking to the straight guys' justifications or needs, except to show how superficial they are. The straight men of Orphan Black are stupid, weak, simple, unethical, violent, buffoonish, and easily manipulated. They are purposefully one-dimensional sketches denied the layers and complex motivations given to the female characters.
But I can't say I agree with Roake that the show is misandrist. One, I would argue that the male characters are more memorable than she thinks, and still have room to grow into something more realized. Felix, for one, already has. Two, I think it's feminist — it tells a story more heavily weighted on women and themes of relevance to their existence, and still manages to incorporate a number of male characters.
Besides, feminist critics aren't aiming to make every single story ever told a fifty-fifty split of male and female or simply start leaving men out. It aims to correct the overall discrepancy in the number of disproportionately male shows that are bought and sold and made and praised as intrinsically more valuable. It calls attention to shows where female characters would improve the story, or when shows about women are dismissed as less vital.
Beyond this, there's so much more the show does well, including deal with questions of nature versus nurture, agency and autonomy as a female, procreating body, treat queer sexuality as no big deal, never make excuses for the intelligence of its characters as being somehow exceptional in spite of their femaleness, and never apologizes for giving women a lot of badass fun on screen (not to mention fun outfits).
So does that make it "the TV equivalent of a Lorde album — fresh, cool, current, vaguely foreign and yet commercial-friendly" or "truffle fries in a Happy Meal" ? Perhaps. Maybe it is just a vampy, campy uber-feminist show about clones, but it's still got a heart. Or nine.