CHAMELEON-LIKE: Tatiana Maslany as Helena, one of eight dopplegangers the young actress portrays in BBC America's <em>Orphan Black</em>.

A con artist, a police detective, a soccer mom, a PHD student, and a trained assassin have nothing in common on paper. Put them in the same room, and you immediately see what links these women. They all have the same face.

Orphan Black is a Canadian science fiction show that airs on BBC America. It follows the adventures of Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany), a London-born con-artist who witnesses the suicide of Canadian police officer Beth Childs, a woman who could be Sarah’s identical twin. Sarah assumes Beth’s identity and discovers in the process she has more doppelgangers, notably Canadian suburban stay-at-home mom Alison Hendrix, American microbiology PHD student Cosima Niehaus, and unstable Ukranian assassin Helena, who believes her doppelgangers are the work of Satan and is hellbent on ending them.

The show plays out like the most thoughtful of thrillers. The well-plotted narrative keeps the twists and turns coming regularly, and the dramatic tension is always wound tight. As these identical women set out to discover what links them, a troubling conspiracy quickly emerges. It is not only their shared past that the characters seek to sort out, but their immediate present, too. The doppelgangers are in constant danger and as the series progresses it becomes increasingly clear that they cannot trust their coworkers, friends, family members, possible even each other. The show embraces the breakneck speed clip format of the suspense genre. From the get-go it’s abundantly clear that this series’ main focus is the character development of its doppelgangers and their complicated and often fractious relationships with one another.

The writing, direction, and production design of this series are all solid to be sure. That said, what makes Orphan Black the best show you’re not watching is its leading lady; Tatiana Maslany plays all the doppelgangers with virtuosic skill. Maslany is so masterful when it comes to differentiating her characters, it’s almost impossible to believe that it really is the same woman behind the eight characters she’s played thus far. Orphan Black, currently in its second season, is not just great television, it’s a first-rate master acting class.

Since the turn of the last century, genre television has provided phenomenal young actresses with leading roles that demonstrate their stratospheric range and launch their careers. Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars, Jennifer Garner as Alias’ Sydney Bristow, Nina Dobrev as The Vampire Diaries’ Elena Gilbert. Maslany not only holds her own with these actresses, she does them one better by shape-shifting into her overwhelming number of roles with skill that feels more like wizardry than Method or Meisner. We currently use Meryl Streep as the standard for an actress with unbelievable range. I expect that years down the line when we talk about acting chameleons, Maslany will be the example we all point to.


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