TV Rewind: Orphan Black Was Binge TV At Its Best

TV Features Orphan Black
TV Rewind: Orphan Black Was Binge TV At Its Best

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

In the spring of 2013 on an underrated show on an underrated network, a misanthropic woman (Tatiana Maslany) on a vacant train platform looks up to see her doppelgänger (critically, Tatiana Maslany also) open-mouth sobbing before emotionlessly stepping in front of a speeding train. From that moment on, one of the last decade’s twistiest, funniest, scariest, and most gripping shows cemented itself as a binge-era behemoth. Ten years later, Orphan Black’s legacy as a whip-smart and genuinely moving TV show, and a product of the era in which it aired, has lived on—but not for all the reasons it set out to.

Against my better judgment, I’ll concede that it’s forgivable for the average TV viewer to not have heard of the show. Premiering in Canada on Space and in the United States on BBC America, Orphan Black follows a group of clones separated at birth who are forced not only to quickly process this information but also band together against enemies who wish to survey them, experiment on them, or just plain kill them. Its plot orbits around Sarah Manning, the aforementioned woman who stumbles upon her suicidal clone in the premiere’s first two minutes, as she connects the dots between her and her genetic sisters’ ethically dubious origins while fighting to keep her daughter out of harm’s way. 

If this sounds like standard sci-fi fare, it’s not: Orphan Black is something of a chimera in terms of genre. Between grotesque body horror involving human tails and pencils in eye sockets, screwball comedy from moments in which one clone is forced to impersonate another, and bloody action pieces and a rabbit hole of a plot, the show may have centered its marketing around its sci-fi elements, but that was just its entry point. Its essence (its genetic code, if you will) lies within the beating hearts of its characters, most notably the clones that the phenomenal Tatiana Maslany—who would finally win an upset Emmy in 2017 for her multi-part performance, and later go on to smash her role as She-Hulk—brings to life on-screen, who each have their own startling and expertly conceived personalities. In a TV landscape era in which few multidimensional roles for women were available, Maslany nabbed 14 of them.

This is what makes Orphan Black both an emblem of its era and an anomaly. The way people watched TV was starting to change when it premiered; streamers like Netflix and Prime Video were putting a stake in the game and racking up Emmys, premium cable was in full swing, and the aughts’ water-cooler shows were being supplanted by watch-them-over-a-weekend marathoners. The term “binge-watch” landed on the shortlist for Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2013, and even though Orphan Black’s seasons weren’t all dumped out at once on a streamer or broadcast on premium cable, “on-demand” options permitted it to be watched at viewers’ leisure. That is, in bite-sized chunks or all at once.

The latter proved more common, with its “delayed viewings” rates the highest of any show in 2014, and Orphan Black indeed lends itself to such an experience. When Sarah capitalizes on the opportunity to disappear from an abusive ex and take on her deceased doppelgänger’s role as a police detective in the show’s first season, Orphan Black thrusted itself out of the gates into a pulse-pounding thriller, with each episode ending not with an answer but with a larger question that demanded our attention. It was addictive. At the same time, this casuistic—yet undeniably juicy—premise could have easily eclipsed the show’s execution in the long run, leading its creative team to drop its attention on the characters and turn to outsmarting its audience as its primary motive (*cough* Westworld *cough*). Thankfully, this was far from the case.

Throughout its five seasons, all of which were strong but had some stretches that wavered in quality (its third season gets a little lost in its own mythology, but then the show boomerangs back with its fourth, finest season), Orphan Black set about creating a world of outliers. Sarah, the tough-as-nails punk; Cosima, the dreadlocked, pot-smoking geneticist; Helena, the psychotic yet disturbingly goofy Ukrainian assassin; even Alison, the suburban soccer mom with a sadistic streak of her own, doesn’t fit in with the Botox-ridden PTA moms she fakes smiles to every day. It’s not until the clone network comes together that each feels a sense of belonging, even under mortal threat. Orphan Black clarifies that one’s autonomy should never be beholden to the whims of others, but sisterhood—whether preordained or earned—is a force that can’t be shackled. 

These themes are what endow Orphan Black its inherently feminist, though never dogmatic, spirit that struck a chord. Despite glowing critical reception, Orphan Black was never a ratings powerhouse, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t find its audience. Following early word-of-mouth praise, the show cultivated an avid fanbase that reflected the changing tides of how social media would allow fan communities to form and hype for a quality show to spread like wildfire. The #CloneClub, the name fans would go by when touting the show online, arose organically after its first season. Orphan Black’s creators and BBC America were quick to take advantage of such a fervid community amid mediocre viewership rates, eventually offering contests for fan art that would be used for ad campaigns and giving #CloneClub members the power to vote on dialogue and props for future episodes. Ten years ago this network-to-fan engagement on social platforms was a rare bit of crafty marketing. Nowadays, it’s simply marketing. 

Aside from how it adapted to a changing TV landscape, the show’s political interests were also particularly prescient in a way that has only gotten depressingly thornier over time. Orphan Black arrived at the crux of moral panic over stem cell research, Obama-era immigration reform, and universal healthcare (the show is ambiguously Canadian, so they get to mostly gloss over that last one), all of which contextualize the series as a product of its time rather than a prognosticator for the future. But throughout its run, it also buoys its sci-fi thriller elements with a historical lens on eugenics, perpetuated by the Neolutionist corporation; detailed critiques of Christeo-fascism, evidenced by the sinister Proletheans; and queer sensibilities—Maslany briefly plays Tony, a transgender clone, who flirts with Sarah’s gay brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) at one point. And while Handmaid’s Tale gets the obvious namecheck these days when conversations around women’s bodily independence or the odd governmental insurgency erupt, Orphan Black’s stances on both the corporeal danger and ethical dilemmas of forced sterilization and embryotic manipulation remain chillingly apt in a post-Roe v. Wade America.

It’s fitting that a show about genetic clones would eventually spawn a spinoff series, Orphan Black: Echoes starring Krysten Ritter, which is reportedly premiering later in 2023. However, it’s somewhat surprising more baldfaced copycats didn’t pop up in the proceeding years since Orphan Black hit the airwaves, though it would have been a tall order to create a show that measures up against Orphan Black’s outrageously addictive narrative, thoughtful characterizations, and sly social and political commentary. These are what make it a modern sci-fi classic and a show that still makes for a fine binge-watch today. Just make sure you don’t have any plans when you do watch. Once you get started, it’ll be nearly impossible to stop.

Watch on AMC+

Michael Savio is an editorial intern at Paste Magazine based in New York. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree at NYU in media and humor studies.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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