I wasn't expecting to enjoy Orphan Black quite as much as I did, perhaps due to residual feelings of disappointment in last year's similarly-themed Ringer. However, this pilot episode did a terrific job of laying out the concept and getting the audience involved in the story and mystery at its heart. Orphan Black concerns streetwise Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany), a young woman who witnesses her doppelgänger jump in front of a moving train. Having left the station with her double's handbag, Sarah makes the decision to assume the identity of the deceased Beth Childs--which results in her obtaining a $75,000 bank account, plush apartment, and a hunky boyfriend called Paul (Dyan Bruce). Unfortunately, it also means Sarah's thrown into the deep end when she realises Beth was a tough detective, and throws up difficulties for her eccentric foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) and her insecure ex-boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando)...
Orphan Black certainly went through some motions regarding any story where a character assumes another identity, some of which have become very clichéd, but it did so with enough panache to make it entertaining. A lot of the show's success is down to Tatiana Maslany, who proves to be a very charismatic and attractive lead. Maslany's English accent sometimes wobbles into Australasian territories, but this is a minor complaint. It also may have helped if we'd been given a better sense of Beth's cop (via the home movies Sarah watches to learn from), because the difference between the two women doesn't feel too stark. Part of the fun of these shows is seeing someone pretending to be something they're not, but that only works if you're fully aware of the difference to begin with.
However, where this show excelled is in putting you right beside Sarah on her adventure. You're with her every step of the way as she explores Beth's life, and encounters obvious problems around people she should recognise, and things she should know. Her cover's always in danger of being blown, and a few people's suspicions have already been raised because of her odd behaviour, and at this early stage it's very entertaining to watch Sarah improvise her way out of tough situations (like making herself physically sick to avoid a police hearing she knows nothing about).
Towards the end of this pilot, its fun but routine 'false identity' plot was given a sci-fi twist that kicked things into deadly thriller territory and left you gasping for episode 2. This breezily enjoyable opener did a brilliant job at juggling everything expected of it, and now the scene's set for something more complex to evolve. Let's just hope it doesn't get too silly. Orphan Black is a 10-part original drama from BBC America, so I'm hoping the story will reach a definitive conclusion in that time. If you're perhaps bored of conspiracy dramas and anything involving twins or clones, I can understand you intending to give this a miss... but the writing's quite sharp, the pace was tight, and Tatiana Maslany feels like a real find.
written by Graeme Manson / directed by John Fawcett / 30 March 2013 / BBC America