Having one actor play several characters in a single show or movie is nothing new. Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers made careers out of it. Lisa Kudrow got to play her own character’s evil sister Ursula on Friends, and Brent Spiner had a similar opportunity on Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing Data, Lore and several others on the Holodeck.
But none of them compare to what Tatiana Maslany accomplished in the first season of BBC America’s Orphan Black.
Maslany plays a host of clones on a sci-fi show that’s not just for sci-fi fans. Her main character, Sarah Manning, is a young British mother living in Canada. A small-time con artist, she’s trying and failing to get her life together when she sees her doppelgänger commit suicide by stepping in front of a train. After stealing the woman’s purse—and identity—Sarah the con artist becomes Beth the cop, scrambling to fool her partner and discovering more women who look just like her.
Each one she comes across—the uptight suburban mom, the gay hipster scientist, the Ukrainian religious fanatic—feels like such a different character that it’s easy to forget that the same actress is behind them all. Even when one dresses up like another, the mannerisms are distinct enough to feel like characters making poor attempts to fit into each other’s skin.
The one person Sarah can trust is her foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), a flamboyant painter who provides much of the show’s humor.
The intrigue ratchets up with each of the 10 episodes. Who is killing the clones? Who created them? And who has been monitoring them all their lives? Every answer creates more questions—the key to every great epic TV mystery.
And though there are elements of sci-fi—human cloning and the Neolutionists who believe in scientifically improving themselves (one character has a tail)—most of the characters aren’t the type who would even watch sci-fi. The show is as much about identity and motherhood as it is the consequences of technology.
But none of it would work without the humanity Maslany brings to each of the clones she portrays in the show.
Orphan Black returns to BBC America for Season 2 in Spring 2014. You can purchase the first season on iTunes.