Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Orphan Black

(Canada, 2013)

A woman on a subway platform sets down her purse, takes off her shoes and carefully sets them down on the ground, folds her coat and leaves it on the purse. Then she quickly steps in front of a speeding train. This is Beth, who we will later learn is a cop upset from having shot an unarmed woman. Very quickly Sarah, a streetwise hustler, grabs the purse and hurries away. We soon discover that the two women look exactly alike. When Sarah learns Beth had $75,000 in the bank, she schemes to get her hands on it, which will involve impersonating Beth, fooling her partner and everyone else.

And that’s just the beginning. There is Alison, a suburban soccer mom with two adopted kids. There is Cosima, a nerdy biochemist. There is Katja, a German punk with pink hair. There is Rachel, an uptight corporate type. There are three other women in Europe, all murdered before the story begins. And most of all there is Helena, raised in a Ukrainian orphanage, a religious fanatic and a stone assassin. All of these woman, with different hair and different accents and very different personalities, have identical faces and bodies. They are clones, produced by some kind of bioengineering and in vitro fertilization in 1984 by a group called the Neolutionists. And someone is killing them off.

It’s a good concept, and it’s done very well. As these things tend to do, it gets more and more complicated, and by the end of the ten-episode first season you might wish you had been taking notes. But it all works well for me.

Something like this rises or falls on the performances by the various clones, which of course are all played by the same woman, Tatiana Maslany. She does a hell of a job. You won’t confuse any of them with any of the others. At least two of them have British origins, and the accents are convincing, though Tatiana is Canadian.

It’s very interesting to contrast this with, say, Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap, from 1961, and Back to the Future III from 1990. In the first one, when the “twins” talk to each other, there will be a clear line demarcating where they blacked out one side of the film so they could run it through again. In the second, there’s a scene where Michael J. Fox is playing several people. But you can easily spot the tricks they used to make it happen. Not so here. In the last episode, in quick succession, Cosima enters a room and is hugged by Sarah, and the faces are clearly visible. Then there’s a scene with all three main characters. One sits on the couch, another in another chair, while a third pours some wine into a glass held out by the girl on the couch. It is totally seamless. You would think it is identical triplets. I know how it’s done, but it’s indetectible.

The second season will be starting in a month, April 19, 2014. I will be there TiVoing it.