There’s nothing like stumbling onto a new show without having been over-prepared by the media. It’s a nearly extinct experience these days, to see something about which you know almost nothing. I watched the first four episodes of “Orphan Black” that BBC America sent to critics without having been exposed to any ads or having looked into the show. I was ignorant and blissful.
I loved the experience, as the story line unfolded with a few juicy twists that took me by surprise. But how can I convey my enthusiasm here for this BBC America drama without spoiling the experience for you? Sigh. So let’s just say that I will not give away central plot points of “Orphan Black,” which premieres Saturday night at 9 after the return of “Doctor Who,” while I try to do some justice to the outline of the show.
I can easily say that the lead actress, Tatiana Maslany, is extraordinary in a role that requires her to behave differently to the various people she encounters. The show has an identity-related theme, and Maslany works it effortlessly, changing faces with the ease of Tracey Ullman or Toni Collette in “United States of Tara.” Mostly, though, she is Sarah, a London punk who has come to a fictional (and unnamed) Northeast city to reconnect with her young daughter and maybe sell cocaine for cash. And as Sarah, Maslany is compelling right from the opening, when she witnesses a distraught woman throw herself in front of a train.
Sarah is shattered by the sight, but not so much that she doesn’t see an opportunity lurking in there. And as she pursues that opportunity, she falls into a rabbit’s hole filled with suspense, conspiracy, police work, sex, scientific secrets, and a tinge of comedy, too, particularly from costar Jordan Gavaris, who is excellent as Sarah’s scrappy foster brother, Felix. Co-created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, the show is a confident blend of genres that at different points reminded me of the 1981 movie “Diva,” the NBC series “Heroes,” and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s short-lived CW show “Ringer.”
The punky design and sounds of “Orphan Black” are nearly characters themselves. The show is filmed in Toronto, and most of the external shots are plastered with graffiti. Many of the characters have tattoos and bruises; Felix’s crammed studio is filled with found urban idiosyncrasies as well as his ghoulish paintings; the accents range from American to Russian; there is leather. When the plot brings some of the characters into the more bourgeois home of a woman in despair, the look is sleek and futuristic. The show doesn’t appear to be a big-budget production, but the atmosphere is rich and engaging.
Also a plus: Maria Doyle Kennedy, as the foster mother of Sarah and Felix who is now taking care of Sarah’s daughter. She was the best thing about “The Tudors,” as Catherine of Aragon, and with a few scenes she was indelible as the first Mrs. Bates on “Downton Abbey.” She serves as an anchor for many of the characters in “Orphan Black,” and, in a sense, the entire show that swirls around her.
By episode 4, the story has grown fairly complicated. I’m hoping that as the 10-episode season continues, Manson and Fawcett will remain in control, and not overplay the identity elements or push the action to a breakneck speed it can’t easily back away from (see: “The Following”). “Orphan Black” has the potential to be memorable entertainment, if they can continue to deliver each and every plot development with a human touch.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.