Really smart article in tomorrow's New York Times Magazine on the subject of my favorite TV actress, the brilliant Tatiana Maslany, and her portrayal of multiple characters on BBC America's Orphan Black.
There's not much to say that hasn't been said about Maslany's amazing ability not only to inhabit all these multiple clone characters, not only to make the physical action seamless, not only to make us forget entirely that the same person is playing these disparate individuals, but also to bring an amazing depth of emotion to scenes in which she only playing against herself. Not much to say except it's long past time for the Emmys to notice this 29-year-old.
Writer Lili Loofbourow does less to illuminate Maslany's personality or the magic of her craft in the piece than she might have, perhaps due to Maslany's own reluctance to talk about herself -- although she gives me plenty of new reasons to adore Maslany for her curiosity and intelligence, like, how many 20-something actresses quote Martha Graham and Agnes DeMille, or comfortably and naturally describe things with phrases like "this is about violition and autonomy"?
Loofbourow seems more interested in her own ideas about Orphan Black than really getting to what makes Maslany tick. But at least the writer has some fascinating things to say about the show, which revolves around a group of genetically identical but psychologically and culturally disparate women discovering that they're actually clones, part of a long ongoing corporate project, who band together to fight for their personal autonomy in the face of claims of ownership.
The description makes it sound like a dramatized feminist treatise, but it doesn't play that way -- though it does hammer hard on other gender and identity themes like nature vs. nurture in a sometimes heavy-handedly way that not even a grad student could love. No, it plays like a wickedly funny action adventure romp full of broad, hilarious characters that would be nothing more than comic at best or corny stereotypes at worst if not for Maslany's ability to invest them with both symbolism and humanity.
But, as Loofbourow writes, the stereotypical qualities of the characters, and their very broadness, is part of the point and magic of Orphan Black:
In its subject matter, “Orphan Black” broods on the nature-nurture debate in human biology, but in its execution, the show cleverly extends the same question to matters of genre. What does the exact same woman look like if you grow her in the petri dish of “Desperate Housewives” or on a horror-film set in Eastern Europe? What about a police procedural? The result is a revelation: Instead of each archetype existing as the lone female character in her respective universe, these normally isolated tropes find one another, band together and seek to liberate themselves from the evil system that created them.
By structuring the story around the clones’ differences, “Orphan Black” seems to suggest that the dull sameness enforced by existing female archetypes needs to die. Early in the first season, there is a serial killer hunting down the clones — it turns out to be Helena, the Ukrainian — who ritualistically dismembers Barbie dolls after dyeing their hair to match that of her next victim. It’s a creepy touch, but one that can also be read as a metacriticism of how women are used on TV: the punishing beauty standards to which they’re held, the imposed uniformity. (Need a new sitcom wife? Grab the prototype and change the hairstyle.)
One of the most interesting things about the show, and its metacriticism of the genres it juggles, isn’t just how elegantly it addresses the solitude that the lone female character on many shows suffers in her particular TV universe. It’s also how resolutely the show refuses to place these genres in opposition to one another. There’s no condescension here; Alison’s suburbia gets as much visual and narrative respect as Rachel’s evil corporate empire. The characters find one another because the system that produced them and scattered them is breaking down. What emerges is a full, generative map of the possibilities that emerge when you let the Strong Female Character and her lonely sisters from other genres mix. By exploring the different directions that “genetic identicals” can take when differently nurtured, “Orphan Black” shows what a single actor can do when given the opportunity — and, by extension, reveals the interesting stories that emerge when women are afforded the chance to exist in rich narrative relation to one another.
Thanks Lili, you make me feel smart for loving Orphan Black, season three of which begins April 18 on BBC America.