BBC America’s Orphan Black is deservedly having a moment, mostly focused on its (equally deserving) star, Tatiana Maslany. She should indeed win all the awards. But while her performances as several genetically identical but very distinct women who realize that they’re clones make the show, Orphan Black has done a lot to be worthy of those performances. Its writing is sharp and funny, its supporting characters are great and diverse and include Max Headroom playing an evil scientist, and while its pacing is unusually patient and sometimes even languid for a tightly-plotted serial drama, it has a way with a wicked payoff.* But what I love most about Orphan Black is its quiet and under-the-radar reversal of the gender norms I expect from pretty much any Critic-Appointed Serious Television Drama, especially those without some reference to women in the title.
Consider how I could generally describe the series’ first few episodes:
A young con artist, stumbling upon a conspiracy involving a serial killer and a multinational corporation’s secret scientific experiments, looks for answers by impersonating a cop and tries to protect friends and loved ones.
If I read that about a buzzy new television show (or movie), I’d automatically assume the con artist is a man, a Jesse Eisenberg or a Joseph Gordon-Levitt, wouldn’t you? Maybe he’ll have a female partner or boss at the police station, almost definitely he’ll have a female love interest and family members to protect, but his role and that of his main antagonists will be assuredly male. Orphan Black gleefully upends all of those assumptions. Its main character is a woman, and then the clones that become the other main characters are women. Part of this is casting and obviously the story’s setup – if you make your main character both a woman and a clone, you’re going to have lots of women on screen – but it’s remarkable how surrounded by other women those clones are. Women are their friends, enemies, coworkers, lovers, mothers and children – and all of those relationships are important to the plot and to the show.
And yet men aren’t absent from or unimportant to Orphan Black. I adore Bunheads and its near-total focus on women navigating the world and their relationships with each other, but Orphan Black is a quietly more sophisticated show, because it also has an array of interesting and fully-fleshed-out male characters. They’re just the supporting characters that in many other ambitious television series would be the designated female roles: the concerned sibling (Felix), the suspicious partner (Art), the crazy ex (Vic), the kvetching spouse (Donnie) and the hot but dangerous femme fatale (homme fatal?), who possibly knows more than he’s letting on (Paul).
Orphan Black isn’t one of those designated lady-targeting ensemble soaps like Scandal or Nashville; or one of those prestigious Shows for Women, like Girls or The Good Wife; and it’s not trying to be Bunheads, with men reduced to the occasional walk-on part. I enjoy (or in the case of Girls, admire) all of those shows; I think The Good Wife is one of the smartest and most sophisticated shows, for Women or not, directly addressing gender politics and norms and realities. But its title and its approach mean that its central questions, like those of Girls and Sex and the City and Bunheads, are largely asked through the lens of What It Means To Be a Woman. It’s a totally valid and worthwhile question (and one that I, certainly, care about finding some answers to), but it’s also a limiting one.
Orphan Black asks that question, too – maternal instincts and the clones’ fertility, or lack thereof, are recurring themes – but it gets to do more. It gets to make “woman” the default norm. It gets to focus on What It Means To Be a Person. That’s traditionally a question we expect and allow only male-dominated shows to ask, because straight white man is the generally accepted standard for “everyone.” By asking that question, Orphan Black basically gets to be a gender-switched Mad Men or Breaking Bad or The Newsroom (sigh), with clones.
This is more than just passing the Bechdel test with flying colors; this is inverting it so much that if too many series (ha) took Orphan Black’s lead, we’d need an equivalent test to determine if men get enough quality screen time. This is demonstrating that good stories are good stories, regardless of the gender of the main character.
And gender isn’t the only area where Orphan Black quietly wins at diversity. Also fantastic: the matter-of-fact, quiet yet deliberate depiction of not one but two! Two! Gay characters. Neither has to announce or overexplain their sexuality, and both get as much on-screen action as the straight characters. This show does so well with avoiding tokenism. It is a largely white show among the main characters, given that about 75% of the main characters are played by Maslany, but it’s notable that two of the main supporting characters, Art and Vic, are of color. And in what again feels like a deliberate choice, the series consistently casts racially diverse extras and guest characters, from soccer-mom Allison’s neighbors and adopted children to Sarah’s birth mother.
So I’m all for the Maslany Emmy talk. I just hope that the groundswell of attention she’s getting brings more focus to the show and the other, even more surprising, ways it excels.
*Spoilers: I love that in the first five episodes, main character Sarah saw her cop clone Beth kill herself, took over Beth’s life, fooled Beth’s coworkers and boyfriend, lulled me as a viewer into thinking that the police station and its procedural flavor would be part of the show’s structure — only to have Sarah quit the force and get caught by the boyfriend, halfway through the series. And the writers knew exactly where to go from there.