We can now add "award-winning" to Tatiana Maslany's name. This week, the Orphan Black star won a Critics' Choice TV Award, generating buzz that she could receive an Emmy nod, which, if there is any justice in the entertainment world, she will.
Very mild spoilers for Orphan Black ahead.
The Critics' Choice isn't actually Maslany's first award. Just last year, she received the TIFF Rising Star and a special jury prize at Sundance for her performance in the film Grown Up Movie Star. But when Orphan Black premiered, we were blown away by an actress who came seemingly from nowhere into a series that perfectly showcases her chops.
Orphan Black centers on Sarah, a young con artist who has just breezed into town to reclaim her daughter, whom she has left in the care of her former foster mother. Just after she arrives, Sarah witnesses another woman, Beth—a woman who looks exactly like her—throw herself in front of a train. Sarah, thinking Beth must be her identical twin, steals her identity, but gradually realizes that their connection is much more bizarre: she and Beth are clones, two of many clones living all over the world.
Maslany did an admirable job running with the frenetic pace of the pilot episode, which focused largely on Sarah and her efforts to con her drug-dealing ex-boyfriend and people in Beth's life. Sarah is, in those early episodes, very much a bad person, and Maslany plays her with unselfconscious selfishness. As she flatters and bluffs her way through cops and bank managers and Beth's own boyfriend, Sarah comes off to the audience as smart and fast on her feet, but not exactly charming. You don't want her deceptions to succeed because you think she deserves it; you want them to succeed because she's so much fun to watch.
But there's a moment in those first few minutes of the pilot that offers a hint at Maslany's skill in inhabiting her myriad characters. On the train platform, Sarah and Beth's eyes meet. Sarah is bewildered, but Beth is already too aware that she's a clone. The look she gives Sarah drips Of course you, of all people, would be here. It's the first big moment of the first episode, and already we have a clear sense of who Beth is and the chasm of experience that separates her from Sarah.
We're fortunate to live in an era of great television, one in which extremely talented men and women deliver wonderful, sometimes daring performances week after week. What makes Maslany's performance so special? It might seem gimmicky to point to the number of roles she's played in just ten episodes (seven on-screen roles, with more sure to come next season), but Maslany has turned that feat into a remarkable suspension of disbelief. In order for Orphan Black to really work as a television show, we in the audience have to believe that each of the clones is a unique person. We might toss off descriptors for Sarah (tough), Alison (Type A), Cosima (book smart), and Helena (insane), but each of these characters is fully realized in Maslany's hands.
Each clone has her own mannerisms, her own way of speaking, her own posture. Even if you came into an episode halfway through, you could likely tell which character Maslany was playing at a glance. It's easy to forget that Alison and Sarah, who have many scenes together, are played by the same actress. I've often found myself grasping for the name of the actress who plays Cosima, only to hit myself on the head and remember that Maslany plays her as well.
Maslany's ability to make each character so distinct is never more clear than when the clones pretend to be one another. Alison pretending to be Sarah is still recognizably Alison and vice versa. If you're not averse to spoilers, this is Sarah:
This is Alison pretending to be Sarah:
This is Alison:
This is Sarah as Alison (at the same party, no less):
What's more, the characters have grown over the season. Sarah makes a gradual shift from antihero to leader of Clone Club. Some of the clones form a sisterly bond, one that shows whenever they bicker or need a shoulder. Even Helena, a clone who leads with the stabby side of her personality, can be downright lovable sometimes.
Again, spoilers, but I present the first part of my favorite scene between Helena and Sarah:
As various outlets have wondered whether Maslany is a contender for an Emmy nod, there has been some debate about whether the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences would consider a little Canadian scifi show on BBC America. What's interesting is that if Maslany gets the nod, it will be because of the show's science fiction premise and the spectacular feat Maslany has achieved as a result. And if she does receive the nomination, could it mean Emmy consideration for other science fiction shows down the line? Granted, Orphan Black is a near-future (if that) show whose main special effect is getting multiple Tatianas in the same room. But the award for outstanding actor or actress should go to someone whose performance has elevated a series. While Orphan Black is an otherwise excellent show with a fabulous supporting cast, it is Maslany's performance that pushes it into the realm of must-watch television. That should be acknowledged whether her cloned characters are running around a space station or a North American city.
And, hopefully, it won't be ignored.