The Best Actress You’ve Never Seen

Have you ever heard of Tatiana Maslany? Probably not, even though she finally won an Emmy award in 2016. Have you ever heard of Orphan Black? Probably not, even though it has been in production since 2012. In both cases, you don’t know what you’ve been missing. Literally. So I’ll tell you.

Orphan Black is a program that originally airs on BBC America (you know, that hip version of PBS where you go to find Benedict Cumberbatch) and now resides on Amazon’s streaming service as well. The show’s fifth and final season kicks off June 10, 2017 (on BBC America). My wife and I have been fans for years, and I highly recommend watching it, but not because it’s the best show you can watch on your TV (it’s not). I recommend Orphan Black so you can watch Maslany and the technical crew do their jobs.

You see, Maslany plays 10 different clones (interesting clones, not crummy George Lucas clones) who are working to overthrow an evil corporation that is manipulating human DNA for nefarious reasons. The premise is interesting but not necessarily groundbreaking (remember that Michael Keaton dud, Multiplicity?). The execution, however, is 100% mind blowing. In the first season, the show focused on the main clones separately (with Maslany utilizing several different wigs and accents – in real life her dad was a translator), only putting them together on occasion with Parent Trap-like effect shots. You couldn’t see the “seams,” but you could tell that the production team was using workarounds to make it look like the same actress was appearing twice in the same scene.

Then an interesting thing happened: the more that Maslany and the Orphan Black team created shots of the actress playing against herself, the better they got at it. Where it used to be a big deal to see three of the “clones” in one shot (Maslany layered three times), it has now become commonplace. In fact, four seasons in, there seem to be no limitations at all on how they use Maslany. The writers and directors simply treat her like 10 different actresses, and the effects people figure it out from there.

The clones have dinner together (sort of like the Klumps, but without the screeching sounds of Eddie Murphy’s career bleeding out). They fight one another (not all of them are good guys). And they walk in front of one another like regular people. In fact, we’ve seen four or five of them in the same room at the same time.

As my wife and I finished the fourth season recently, she turned to me and said “I keep forgetting that they are all the same actress.” I thought about it for a moment, and realized that I, too, was simply watching Orphan Black as a sci-fi thriller, not as a master class in video effects. Not only have the effect shots become so convincing that there is absolutely no point in trying to figure them out, Maslany is a force of nature. When there were only a few clones on the show, her dialects acted as a crutch for viewers (“oh, that’s the Russian one!”). Now, several of the clones have the same accent (American / Canadian) but distinct speech patterns. I challenge you to tell that Cosima (a University of Minnesota grad student), Krystal (a gum-snapping manicurist) and Alison (a church-going housewife) are the same actress. It’s impossible.

This combination of incredible acting and fantastic editing creates something akin to watching the Olympics – you may not be completely interested in the sport (handball, anyone?) but watching the skill of the players makes it impossible to look away. It may seem very meta, but I challenge you to watch Orphan Black for the process even if you don’t watch if for the show itself – it’s that good. And as a bonus, I have a feeling you’ll get caught up in the plot as well.

When Orphan Black ends this summer, it will be a sad day for fans, but a great day for the rest of the world. That’s because Tatiana Maslany will have a lot more time to work on other projects, and we’ll get to see her talents in productions that are easier to consume. But don’t wait. Start watching the best show you’ve never watched today, and I guarantee that you’ll enjoy watching the best actress you’ve never see.