Smart thriller, department store drama head new television entries

Tatiana Maslany is fearless as a thief and hustler in Toronto in "Orphan Black."
Tatiana Maslany is fearless as a thief and hustler in Toronto in "Orphan Black." (© Steve Wilkie for BBC America)
Posted: March 31, 2013

Sci-fi shows are generally so enamored of capturing a futuristic, Kubrick-esque look that they lack real human depth. Not so with BBC America's gritty, visceral, and emotionally engaging thriller, Orphan Black, an intelligent, addictive mystery about human cloning that premieres Saturday at 9 p.m.

This weekend also sees the launch of PBS' latest Masterpiece entry, Mr. Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven as the American entrepreneur who founded the famous London department store Selfridges in 1909. It premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.

Orphan Black was created by two of Canada's best cult auteurs: Cube director Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, who is best known for the feminist werewolf flick Ginger Snaps.

Tatiana Maslany ( The Vow, Being Erica) gives a fearless performance as Sarah, a petty thief and hustler who rolls into Toronto after nearly a year on the lam only to have the shock of her life when she witnesses a smartly dressed woman throw herself in front of an oncoming train.

It's a double shock: For an instant, the woman turns to face Sarah. The two are identical.

Did Sarah, an orphan, have a twin?

No time for questions.

Sarah is on the run from an abusive boyfriend, from the law, and, most desperately, from her own life. So she makes the only logical, if insane, decision possible: assume the identity of dead woman, Beth Childs. It's a sweet deal: Beth owns a beautiful, luxe pad and has $75,000 in the bank.

Things sour fast when Sarah finds out Beth is a police detective and has a live-in boyfriend. The best-laid plans, right?

In another crazy turn, a second Sarah double, a German named Katja, accosts Sarah in her car and asks for protection.

Katja tells Sarah all the sisters are being hunted down and killed. ( Sisters?! All of them? How many are there?)

A gunshot. Blood everywhere. A car chase.

There ends the pilot.

With its superb production values and terrific acting, especially from Maslany (man, she's something else), Orphan Black could very well turn out to be one of the best thrillers of the year.

Shopping at Selfridges.

Despite its impeccable provenance - it was created by award-winning  scribe Andrew Davies - Mr. Selfridge doesn't inspire the same enthusiasm.

Piven, best known for playing the sly, sneaky, slick, sarcastic Hollywood agent Ari Gold on HBO's Entourage, is working against type as the larger-than life Harry Gordon Selfridge, a man of boundless optimism who founds his famous store despite overwhelming odds.

Structured as an Upstairs Downstairs -ish period soap, Mr. Selfridge takes us into the lives and loves of a dozen characters orbiting Harry's bright sun. There are his patient wife, Rose (Frances O'Connor), an ambitious salesgirl (Aisling Loftus), a temperamental French display designer (Grégory Fitoussi), and a sexy showgirl (Zoe Tapper) hired to promote the store. Intrigue and hijinks follow.

Davies' series was produced by ITV to compete with BBC's more accomplished department store drama, The Paradise. It tries to outdo the other by being louder, more lavish. And it suffers from hyperbole-exhaustion.

Piven's performance is too broad. One wishes Ira would show up and give Harry a slap.

'Doctor Who' returns.

Brit-drama fans take note: Doctor Who returns Saturday at 8 pm. on BBC America with an episode that has Matt Smith's Doctor pick up a new companion, Clara (the sublimely beautiful Jenna-Louise Coleman).


Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2436 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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