When we meet Sarah, she’s just off a train, trying to get in touch with a daughter she hasn’t seen in a long time. She’s also watching a woman about her own size, in high heels and a neat suit. The woman, who looks exactly like Sarah, slowly removes her shoes and steps in front of a moving train. Driven by desperation, greed or curiosity, Sarah steals her doppelganger’s purse, and proceeds to invade the life of now-deceased Beth Childs. That’s the first scene of the BBC’s compelling Canadian import Orphan Black, which premiered Saturday on BBC America.
Sarah is on the run from her abusive coke-dealer boyfriend, and aided in her attempts to flee him (and steal his cocaine) by childhood friend Felix. They grew up together as foster siblings under the care of Mrs. S, who now fosters the child Sarah abandoned a year ago. When Sarah discovers that a woman who looks just like her has a ritzy apartment and $75,000 in the bank, she doesn’t hesitate to try to take it all, and erase the memory of Sarah for good.
It turns out that pretending to be Beth isn’t all that easy: A cop who shot a civilian for unknown reasons, Beth is supposed to testify about the incident, and Sarah chugs soap to make herself vomit in front of the investigatory panel. Just when she’s ready to bolt, Beth’s boyfriend shows up and starts getting suspicious. Sarah distracts him with sex, and then has to dodge him in the morning to proceed with her plan to run away from both Sarah and Beth’s real lives. The “take the money and run” plan starts to go down the drain when Beth’s partner starts following her, Felix has a very public wake for Sarah, and a third woman with Sarah’s face shows up begging for help, only to be shot by an unknown assailant.
The pilot has a bit of a slow start, but it works to set up two characters’ backstories simultaneously. We already know from the BBC promotional material that Sarah and Beth are clones, not twins - but Sarah doesn’t know that yet; she hasn’t even had a full conversation with one of her doubles. Sarah is so distrustful of everyone that it almost makes sense that her gut instinct would be to hide out as another person and go on the run instead of using Ancestry.com to figure out if she and Beth just had the same deadbeat parents.
Tatiana Maslany is a compelling lead, and Sarah and Beth feel like genuinely different people, not just the same girl with two accents. Grace Park set the gold standard for playing multiples in Battlestar Galactica, and while Maslany isn’t quite there yet, she’s far more believable than Eliza Dushku’s multiple roles in Dollhouse. The writers, thankfully, didn’t throw in any moments in which Sarah does things by “instinct” exactly as Beth would do them. Her instincts are, if anything, totally wrong -- adding to the feeling that nurture has won out over nature in making these women who they are.
The pilot doesn’t reveal anything about the plots and characters we should expect out of this drama. Will Sarah inhabit different identities over time in order to unravel the mystery of who she is? Is Sarah’s cover as Beth going to hold up for a full season? Are all the clones orphans who grew up without families, or only Sarah? And will Sarah get her life together enough that she can get her daughter back? I won’t mind too much if we have to wait a few episodes to find out.