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Blu-ray Review: ‘Orphan Black Season One’

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OBIf you’ve paid attention to Emmy news at all this past week or so, you’ve likely heard outrage over the snub of Tatiana Maslany, who has been picking up all sorts of other awards. If you’re not familiar with who this young woman is or what she has done to deserve such passionate following, then you haven’t seen the Canadian / BBC America drama Orphan Black. Luckily, all ten episodes of Season One are now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Orphan Black tells the story of Sarah Manning (Maslany), a woman trying to put her life together so that she can take care of her daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler, Alphas). See, Sarah has been romantically involved with an abusive drug dealer named Vic (Michael Mando, Les Bleus de Ramville), and so Siobhan “Mrs. S.” Sadler (Maria Doyle Kennedy, The Tudors), the woman who raised Sarah and her foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris, Unnatural History), has stepped in and taken Kira until Sarah can find a more stable environment.

When Sarah sees someone who looks just like her commit suicide, she senses the opportunity to better her standing and ability to start over, at least financially. Assuming Beth Childs’ (also Maslany) identity, Sarah suddenly finds herself in a situation that’s hard to get out of. Beth is a cop with a live-in boyfriend, Paul (Dylan Bruce, As the World Turns), and a suspicious partner, Art (Kevin Hanchard, Savage Planet). Plus, Beth is in trouble at her job.

If that were all Sarah had to deal with, it might be enough for any series to tackle. But Orphan Black is not just any series, and I feel like I’ve buried the lead in explaining the set up, something the first episode, “Natural Selection,” sort of does, before making a course correction, with the story picking up considerably over the rest of the run. Beth is not just a long-lost twin to Sarah, she is a clone. And there are a number of other clones around, as well as secret agencies that would like to control them.

Orphan Black is a fantastic tale, tightly written, without procedural or weekly stories to bog it down, but the biggest draw by far is Maslany’s performance. Whether she is playing Sarah, Beth, Alison, a put-upon housewife, Cosima, a nerdy genius, Helena, a psychotic religious fanatic serial killer, Katja, a desperate Russian, or a few other characters, Maslany captures distinctly different personalities so that none seem at all like the other, each with different dialect, mannerisms, and attitudes.

Even better is when one of the characters pretends to be another one of the clones, and Maslany somehow strikes a balance between the two, mixing characteristics so that attentive viewers will be able to identify what is really going on, even if characters on screen may not. It may be the most impressive acting I’ve ever seen. No one has played multiple roles in one work so thoroughly convincing before. No one. And she does it consistently, scene after scene, and no offense to the other fine actors involved, but shouldering the burden of the series almost completely single-handedly.

Orphan Black also raises some moral and legal issues. Should cloning be allowed? Under what circumstances? Can a company patent and own a human being if they are the by-product of their patented process? This is a timely issue, with recent court rulings about what can and cannot be owned concerning genetic material in the news this summer. Fascinating!

I know blu-ray reviewers still discuss picture and sound quality of the releases, though I’m not sure why, because just above all modern series have the same high marks these days. Orphan Black is no exception. The series has a dark-colored tone, and it is masterfully layered with rich blacks and details in the shadows. The soundtrack is seamlessly mixed with the dialogue, and both the audio and the visual are incredibly crisp and defined. I detected no flaws to speak of, though who pays attention to such things that closely when sucked in by such an amazing story and Maslany’s talent? It is worth checking out in any quality, but the blu-ray release is sure to be the best, and so worth getting.

One thing I found very odd about the packaging is that it lacks a booklet or interior episode list of any kind. You actually have to pop the discs in to see the installment names. That’s a tad disappointing to me, though only a minor annoyance for anyone with a smart phone or tablet handy.

The bonus features are a little light. “Send in the Clones” is a sixteen-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that feels more like a way to sell the series to potential viewers who haven’t seen the show yet than an informative look for fans, introducing characters and elements, rather than going deeper on them. We also get seven minutes of Maslany’s appearance on The Nerdist, cross promotion for another BBC America series, and “Inside,” a five minute extra of separate pieces, previously played during commercial breaks, that is a lot like “Send in the Clones,” but shares focus with characters not played by Maslany.

Orphan Black Season One is available now.

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome writes TV reviews for BlogCritics.org and Seat42F.com, as well as fiction. He is a frequent guest on two podcasts, Let's Talk TV with Barbara Barnett and The Good, the Bad, & the Geeky. All of his work can be found on his website, jeromewetzel.com