Canadian Hustle

In Orphan Black, those cop armpit holsters that are half the uniform of on-screen detectives and PIs are impossibly unintuitive. For Sarah, the master imposter (she's even pretending to be a good imposter), the hardest parts of being a cop are the lingo and the mess of straps and snaps that's supposed to carry her gun. The rest she teaches herself in a day.

That classic scene of the stern police chief returning the unruly cop's badge and gun with a hefty clomp induces not a righteous broadening of possibility for her, but panic. "Hey, uh, gimme a couple minutes," she says, and escapes to the bathroom, where she struggles with the holster. "You want help with that?" a uniformed policewoman mocks. "Yeah, you mind?" She thought impersonating a dead detective would make her life easier, but it just makes it more frenetic. ~~Her~~ reinstatement leads not to an invigorating helicopter pan, but to a low, cramped shot in the bathroom.

The more her life resembles Frank Ocean's line "three lives balanced on my head like steak knives," the more fun the show and the more masterly Tatiana Maslany. At one point Sarah asks for a big favor from her most repressed clone sisters, Alison: to impersonate Sarah in front of Sarah's daughter. Maslany has to play Sarah badly enough that she still seems like Alison. Exiting high-wire this thespian caper, Sarah's foster brother remarks "aren't you full of surprises--you passed." Alison succeeded at impersonating Sarah by doing something Sarah would never do: She thanks Sarah's daughter's foster mother for being such a good parent.

She's pleased by the inconsistency, and the boyfriend of Beth, the detective Sarah is impersonating, is turned on. "It's like you're an entirely different person, lately"--this is just the kind of laugh the show goes for--for which she apologizes. "No," he says, "most of it I like." Of course, this only holds up if she remains mysteriously new. She can't actually reveal that she is who she is (if indeed she is). When they first meet and he's full of suspicious questions, she kisses him, which leads to anywhere but the truth. This confusion of clones (a murder of crows and a confusion of clones) has a way of literalizing the divided subject. Using sex to distract from (mis)recognition is an entirely believable scenario, but in this case, she's trying to keep him from seeing that she is in fact someone else. The difference between literal and metaphoric seems so flimsy that I used italics.

For Sarah, work isn't about time or elbow grease, but performance. She becomes a detective not by learning skills, but genres. And she's a good detective because she doesn't know the genre well enough to really involve herself in the police procedural cliches that surround her. She's an observer hoarding insight. Her partner is grave and full of tough love, in that way that partners are. The other investigators on the case put together a psych profile made of childhood abuse and religiosity, as psych profiles are. While not untrue, watching Sarah-as-Beth watch these proceedings renders them futile and ridiculous. The police also assume that they're trying to catch a man. Only Sarah knows who they're really trying to catch, another clone.

While True Detective tries to deepen the genre by playing it as dark and serious as possible, Orphan Black tries to show the trying. Sarah's troubles know no end, but her flailing only took this turn to acting when she tried once and for all to absolve herself from work. At first blush, she's only stealing her doppleganger's identity to get some cash. To escape. And she insists to her foster brother, Felix, that her interest is entirely instrumental, that she's not curious. Liquidating Beth's identity for money turns out to be the most intimate relation of all. As if coming home, Beth takes off her heels and drops her purse before she jumps in front of a train. Sarah takes the purse and leaves the heels behind, but Beth left a whole closet of shoes to fill.

Who is pretending to be who just gets crazier and riskier. By episode 6, Sarah is pretending to be Alison interrogating Alison's husband, and Alison is pretending to her house full of neighborhood potluckers that she doesn't have her husband in the basement. ("Where's your husband?" "I told you, he's tied up.") Alison and Sarah switch which Alison they're playing. Both Vic (Sarah's criminal ex) and Paul (Beth's boyfriend/stalker) show up. As the parenthetical threatens to break out, the rooms of Alison's house reveal their dangerous porousness, and different genres and stories nearly smash into each other, the episode becomes a sitcom.

And so does the show. To take its seriousness seriously would be total boredom. It's not Scandal, whose ridiculousness is inseperable from the fact that it (and its many atomic monologues) is bigger, bolder, and more riveting than life. Orphan Black's intermittent charm, like Sarah, is in its half-assed commitment to genre. It couldn't be bothered to craft a decent plot or execute it with a nonobvious twist. The fun is putting Maslany into crises of competing narratives to act her way out of.

30 January 2014