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Orphan Black: Season One

BBC Worldwide // Unrated // July 16, 2013
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 9, 2013 | E-mail the Author
You can almost picture Sarah heaving a sigh as she takes that first, reluctant step off the train. Flat broke and weary-eyed, something clearly went terribly wrong wherever it is that Sarah just came from, and the stormy phone call that
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follows suggests that more of the same misery awaits her here. A visibly nervous, well-dressed woman a short distance down the platform catches Sarah's eye. As Sarah begins to approach her, this woman in black slips off her high heels and neatly folds her designer jacket. Sarah, inexplicably drawn towards this unfamiliar figure, watches as the woman turns. Sarah isn't altogether sure what she expected to see, exactly, but she certainly didn't expect to see herself. A single tear rolls down her doppelgänger's cheek before she takes a few short steps to the right, directly in the path of an oncoming train.

Sarah is from...well, this isn't the most appropriate analogy here, but she's from the wrong side of the tracks. After watching in horror as someone who looks unnervingly like her commits suicide, Sarah doesn't see a mystery crying out to be unraveled: she sees an opportunity. Sarah doesn't know the first thing about this "Beth" who'd flung herself head-on into death's embrace, but it's still a chance at a fresh start. So what if Sarah empties out Beth's savings account? It's not as if anyone else is going to be filling out a withdrawal slip anytime soon. This is the windfall Sarah had been dreaming about to grab her fractured family and leave the past behind in the rear-view mirror. It's just that Sarah wanted to borrow Beth's life only briefly; Beth's life, however, isn't quite ready to let go. Not only is Sarah violently tossed into the deep end of a troubled woman's indescribably complicated existence, but she's also thrust into the investigation that ultimately consumed Beth. You see, there's a reason this suicidal young woman hardly flinched at the sight of a mirror image of herself on that train platform, and that will hardly be the first time that Sarah looks on helplessly as "she" meets a grisly end...

Orphan Black dug its hooks into me from its very first scene and never let go. In a perfect world, I'd end the review right there too. A key element of Orphan Black's appeal is its sense of discovery. It refuses to settle into a comfortable formula. It doesn't spell out the overarching premise from word one. Sarah is thrust into an unfamiliar world and is forced to figure it out as she goes along, and we're right there with her. The "c" word that was such a critical element of the promos on BBC America and is even spoiled on the cover of this Blu-ray set doesn't come into play until several episodes in. The less you know about Orphan Black beforehand, the better.

Nearly all of my favorite genre series generally take a full season to figure out what they are, but Orphan Black doesn't suffer from that sort of identity crisis. This is as perfect a freshman season as I've ever seen. When the series looks as if it's written itself into a corner, Orphan Black refuses to take an obvious way out. Everything is critically important; a
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seemingly throwaway moment you barely remember from seven episodes back will inevitably resurface to haunt you. If it seems like a plot point has been dropped or forgotten, give it a little longer. The mythology that's gradually built over these ten episodes is rich, compelling, and never threatens to overwhelm the series. Like all the best conspiracies, there isn't an immediately obvious villain, and Sarah and her 'sisters' aren't staunch, cape-flapping-in-the-wind heroines. There's an unmistakeable element of good in each of them, sure, but they're ultimately driven by their own distinct motivations. It's sexy. It's brutal. It's swift and constantly surprising. The balance between characterization and plot is pitch-perfect. Its sense of humor is razor-sharp. Every episode fires on all cylinders, without a clunker in the lot. The closest thing to criticism I can muster is "wait, why does this middle-aged sinister geneticist guy own an underground dance club again?"

Orphan Black gets essentially everything right, but far and away the best decision it makes is the casting of Tatiana Maslany as the lead. There aren't words to fully describe what an immense talent she is. Any other series with a similar premise would reduce the lookalikes to a haircut, an accent, and one overbearing personality trait. The writing behind Orphan Black makes it a point to elevate its supporting cast into something greater, but it's Maslany who ultimately realizes them as distinct, individual characters. Maslany is such a chameleon -- infusing her performances with so many unique touches and subtle mannerisms -- that it's easy to forget that one actress is bringing to life seemingly half the characters in the series. I try not to use words like "revelation" lightly, but when Maslany is playing a character who's playing another character as brilliantly as this, it's impossible not to be dazzled.

There's so much more I want to say about Orphan Black. I've barely touched on the supporting cast. I haven't raved about how Alison is pretty much my favorite character in anything, ever. Criminally, I haven't said a word about Jordan Gavaris as Sarah's snarky foster brother. I've resisted the urge to reveal much of anything about the overarching mythology or menacing conspiracies behind the series. I'll leave that instead for you to discover. Orphan Black is one of the most masterfully crafted and wildly addictive genre series I've come across in ages, and for those who missed it the first time around on BBC America, it's an essential discovery on Blu-ray. Very, very Highly Recommended.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of the Blu-ray discs on this side of the pond bearing the BBC stamp, Orphan Black is a Canadian
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production. As the series doesn't have to deal with the usual UK-to-US framerate conversion, it arrives on Blu-ray in the familiar 1080p24.

If you're not nearly enough of a home theater geek for those sorts of specs to set your heart a-twitter, I'll skip to the part of the review you're really interested in: Orphan Black looks phenomenal on Blu-ray. Fine detail and clarity are nothing short of astonishing. There's such a convincing sense of depth and dimensionality that Orphan Black looks as if it could almost pass for 3D. This Blu-ray set easily eclipses anything I could hope to catch on any of my bit-starved HD cable channels. The authoring of this first season collection is flawless as well, not dragged down by any excessive filtering, missteps in the compression, or artificial sharpening. I'm not left with much of anything to grouse or groan about; Orphan Black is a series that demands to be experienced in high definition, and this Blu-ray release is as close to perfection as anything I've come across.

Orphan Black's pair of dual-layer discs each house five episodes. This season is presented at its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and has been encoded with AVC.

Orphan Black boasts a set of 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, and once again, there's very little room for complaint. Most critically, the series' dialogue is balanced flawlessly, never undeservedly struggling for placement in the mix. I'm in awe of the dazzling clarity of the music throughout the series, most memorably the punishing, throbbing dubstep in an underground club. The electronic-tinged score often seizes hold of the subwoofer as well. The surrounds are generally reserved for reinforcing the music and fleshing out a strong sense of atmosphere. The rear channels are occasionally unleashed for more than ambiance too. The sound design isn't what I'd call aggressive or cinematic, but it's at the very least a notch or two above most of the genre TV series I've come across on Blu-ray. Very nicely done all around.

The only other audio option is a set of English (SDH) subtitles.

The handful of extras are all found on disc two. Disappointingly, there are no deleted scenes or
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audio commentaries.
  • Send in the Clones (16 min.; HD): Orphan Black's creators briefly introduce the concept and then delve into several of the series' key characters.

  • Orphan Black on The Nerdist (7 min.; HD): First is a chat between Tatiana Maslany and Chris Hardwick, and then you get a quick set visit out of the deal.

  • Insiders (5 min.; HD): Last up are four microfeaturettes: "Sarah", "Felix", "Beth", and "Three Clones, One Frame". The first three are at least partially culled from the same set of footage as the other extras in the set, and you can tell from their titles where they swing the spotlight. The last and least promotional of the bunch takes a look behind the scenes at an ambitious sequence with Sarah sharing the frame with two of her "sisters".

The Final Word
At one point in Orphan Black, a self-flagellating, fanatically religious, Ukranian genetic duplicate writhes around to Skrillex in an underground club while twirling around a severed, bio-engineered man-tail like a glow stick. As gloriously insane as that sounds, Orphan Black is so brilliantly written and acted that a suburban potluck lunch can be every bit as fascinating. It's smart, it's sexy, it's disturbing, it's constantly surprising, it's a hell of a lot of fun, and it's just about the most wildly addictive series on TV right now. Highly Recommended.
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Highly Recommended

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