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She is clone, hear her roar

Slyly disguised amid Orphan Black's sci-fi tropes are serious feminist themes

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Orphan Black stars Tatiana Maslany as Sarah Manning

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Orphan Black stars Tatiana Maslany as Sarah Manning

Orphan Black, the sneaky-smart Canadian sci-fi series, debuted fairly quietly last March as "that show about clones." Then it started getting buzz as "the hottest new show you're not watching."

Now that the second season is underway, with added media hype and big North American and British audiences, Orphan Black has stealthily developed into "the most subversively feminist show on television."

And we're talking actual feminism here, not just that dubious Girl Power that involves gorgeous women in skin-tight black leather kicking each other in the head. (Sometimes all that head-kicking expresses female empowerment, and sometimes it offers just another pervy variation of the male gaze.)

The show addresses serious feminist themes, while delivering dark thrills and even darker comedy -- and yes, a certain amount of black-leather cat-fighting. Orphan Black is a cool and compellingly watchable examination of female identity.

The series grabbed viewers, feminist and otherwise, with its memorable opening scene: Sarah (Tatiana Maslany), a punk grifter, encounters a woman who looks exactly like her, and then watches, horrified, as her doppelganger walks in front of a train.

Sarah goes on to meet more look-alikes as she is pulled into a sinister, secretive conspiracy involving human cloning. Orphan Black manages to be deliciously paranoid while remaining comically abashed about its main subject. (The central characters don't even like to use "the C-word," as they call it, looking a little embarrassed whenever the term comes up.)

The cloning plotline keeps introducing us to women who look physically the same but immediately diverge into different female types. There's the tough, street-smart survivor. There's the brainiac science nerd with black-frame glasses. There's the icy corporate bitch in $800 pumps. There's the coupon-clipping, minivan-driving suburban soccer mom. And there's the crazed, feral, bleached-blond assassin supposedly raised by Ukrainian nuns. (OK, that last one is less common, but Helena, as she's called, is basically the 21st-century version of the madwoman in the attic.)

The self-aware Orphan Black is just playing with these TV tropes, however, because these women aren't types at all. They are soon revealed as unexpected, complicated characters with some dangerous edges. When science-girl and Sarah meet up in a bar, a smarmy bartender sizes them up by saying: "Let me guess. You're the smart one, and you're the wild one." The trick with Orphan Black is that these gals are all smart, and they're all wild. And they all really hate getting stereotyped.

In an ongoing gag, it turns out that Alison, the uptight, perpetually vacuuming suburbanite, is probably the baddest-ass clone of all. At one point, she ties up a potential enemy in her neatly organized craft room and tortures him with her hot glue gun.

Despite charter membership in what they jokingly call the Clone Club, these women clearly aren't fembots. They are, in fact, some of the best developed female characters around.

At one point, someone says to Sarah, "There are nine of you?" and Sarah fiercely responds, "There's only one of me," an assertion that wouldn't hold up particularly well for many of the women currently on TV. Sarah's prickly individuality reveals just how clone-like those standardized wife/girlfriend/daughter/victim roles really are.

While each Orphan Black woman is different, there are also commonalities. The show is primarily about female relationships. Sisterhood is powerful, and genetically identical sisterhood, it turns out, is really powerful. One of the real pleasures of the show is watching these bio-engineered siblings bicker, borrow each other's clothes, talk long into the night and occasionally try to kill each other, the way sisters do.

This strange magic is made possible by Tatiana Maslany, the extraordinary Saskatchewan-born actor at the centre of the show. Rationally, of course, I know that Maslany is one woman playing multiple roles. But I still tend to think of the cast as an extremely talented set of octuplets. Maslany's shape-shifting performances require not only that she play all these different women, but that she play them against each other, even layered over each other, since the labyrinthine storylines sometimes involve one clone pretending to be another.

Maslany often seems to be embodying "the many faces of woman" -- wife! mother! lover! rebel! vacuumer! -- as if she's starring in some kind of deranged perfume ad. But again, Orphan Black is messing with this idea. By having one woman playing so many roles -- literally -- the series suggests that being a woman, for clones and non-clones alike, involves some measure of dressing up and performing.

Cleverly mixing up pop-culture conventions with some ferociously real women, the show is about the search for female identity. Orphan Black: Come for the clones. Stay for the feminist subtext.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 D12

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