Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tatiana Maslany on ‘Orphan Black’: Best TV Performance Ever?

Tatiana Maslany as ‘Orphan Black’s’ clones (left to right): Sarah, Alison, Cosima, Rachel, and Helena
As I’ve said before, I’m not big on awards, especially those handed out by the entertainment industry.  The bequeathed statuettes do more to signify a snapshot of the industry at that particular moment in time, rather than a bid for posterity.  The fact that Orson Welles, one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, won only two Oscars, one for co-writing Citizen Kane and the other an honorary award, tells me that industry self-recognition should not be taken seriously. 

However, for the last four years, I’ve seen on my television screen a superlative acting performance of such depth and dexterity that it cries out for the TV industry to acknowledge it with the highest honor.  I haven’t watched enough television to say for certain that it is the best performance by a thespian ever to shoot through the cable and into the living room, but I can’t think of a better one I’ve seen.  

Since 2013, I have been mesmerized by the cable-TV science-fiction thriller Orphan Black.  The series gradually unveils the story of a dozen different laboratory-conceived female clones, genetic identicals, who are separated at birth but discover each other as adults and become enmeshed in a net of intrigue that threatens their very existence.  Not only is the series well crafted and compelling, but it also trenchantly touches on issues of identity and bodily autonomy.  And holding this sprawling series together are the masterful performances of the lead actress Tatiana Maslany, who portrays all of the numerous female clones.  Incredibly, Maslany has never won an Emmy for her astounding work.  But this year, for the second time in a row, the Emmys have nominated Maslany’s performance(s) in Orphan Black for Outstanding Female Actress in a Drama Series.  Still, why she wasn’t nominated from the very beginning of Orphan Black’s eligibility and why she lost last time remain mysteries to me. 
Maslany as both Alison (left) and Sarah
Playing each and every female clone character (I’ve counted twelve so far, some of them featured on the show only very briefly), Maslany endows the clone characters with distinct mannerisms and vocal traits.  Not only does the Canadian actress nail an utterly convincing London accent for the lead character of street-smart Sarah, but she also gives her multiple North American characters distinct styles of speaking.  (The series is set somewhere in the northeastern quadrant of North America.)  Combined with the show’s award-worthy make-up, which endows each of her characters with a distinctive appearance, Maslany’s performances, by the end of the episode, leave the viewer incredulous that these unique characters are all played by the same actress.  If I had my way, every Emmy acting nominee to qualify for best performer in their category would need to play multiple roles on their shows and try to convince the audience that these characters are played by different people.  I wonder how many other thespians can do that
Maslany as both Sarah (top) and Rachel
But more than that, Maslany endows each of her characters with a palpable complexity and layering that I have only seen the most gifted performers accomplish (Robert De Niro comes to mind).  Often when her characters speak, Maslany gives their voices inflections and intonations that suggest multiple layers of feelings and motives, even when the scenes don’t necessarily call for going that extra mile.  And her body language is equally expressive.  In one scene from the second episode of the second season, Sarah fires a warning shot close to the head of antagonist clone Rachel (also played by Maslany), whose body then jerks into nervous convulsions.  The performance comes across as though Maslany were genuinely frightened and had genuinely lost control of her body, rather than an actor’s obviously controlled affectation of alarm. 

Below is the very first scene of the very first episode of Orphan Black, where Sarah witnesses the suicide of policewoman clone Beth (Maslany again), the event that sets the show’s plots and subplots into motion. 

Once she sees Beth fatally throw herself under a train, Sarah’s eyes well with tears, as though Maslany were shocked and upset by actually witnessing a suicide.  The eye-welling is a touch that wasn’t absolutely necessary for the scene, but Maslany’s tearing up bequeaths a better sense of Sarah’s inner life and makes the authenticity of the character more credible.  This scene (which also shows off the actress’s mastery of an Estuary London accent for Sarah) is only one small example of Maslany’s extraordinary work on Orphan Black

However, this actress from the Great White North isn’t favored to win the Emmy this year, just as she lost last year.  While her competition is very talented, what Maslany is doing on Orphan Black — something that she is unlikely to be called upon to do in her future projects — is utterly phenomenal, and I can’t imagine Maslany’s competition pulling off what the Canadian actress pulls off week after week on the series.  And I can’t understand why Emmy voters and the conventional wisdom don’t regard her as a shoo-in for the award.  What Tatiana Maslany is doing on Orphan Black looks to me like the kind of work that the Emmy was invented for. 

Update, September 19, 2016:

Tatiana Maslany won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama after all.  Her work in Orphan Black has been recognized by the television academy.  Huzzah!  Now, I can go back to not caring about show-biz awards.  

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