Last year “Orphan Black” was a surprise hit on the awards scene, coming out of nowhere to win awards at Critics’ Choice and the Television Critics Association for its star Tatiana Maslany, and then a nomination at the Golden Globes, but it was shut out at the Emmys. However, this year will be the real litmus test.
The show never had a realistic chance in last year’s Emmy race. It debuted in March 2013, but it was airing on the out-of-the-way BBC America network, better known for its British imports (“Doctor Who,” “Luther“) than for original series, and its surge of buzz didn’t come until late, so by the time Emmy voters might have heard about it there was little opportunity to pay it much attention, let alone watch it while it aired; the first season averaged fewer than half a million viewers.
Even I was late to the party. I watched the pilot last year because it was sandwiched between shows I was already watching, “Doctor Who” and “The Nerdist,” but didn’t keep up with it. Then came Critics’ Choice, the TCA Awards, the Golden Globes, and most recently the Peabody Awards. I finally relented and devoured all 10 episodes of season one in a two-day binge earlier this month.
If a conscientious TV-watcher like me didn’t discover the show until after the fact, then surely there will be many other late adopters, and people like us will be the key to the show’s Emmy hopes this year.
“Orphan Black” is officially on the radar now, so visibility isn’t a problem anymore – Maslany is even on the cover of Emmy Magazine – and we can expect a ratings surge for season two, much the way “Breaking Bad” gradually built from little-show-that-could to ratings blockbuster as people discovered it over time. How big a boost it gets remains to be seen, but becoming a bona fide hit could help legitimize it to skeptical Emmy voters.
On the other hand, if voters don’t take the bait now that the show is a media sensation, that could be a damning rejection, and “Orphan Black” could turn into this generation’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” perennially snubbed in major categories while critics and fans futilely curse the TV gods for forsaking it.
But if Maslany does get nominated for Drama Actress, she might instantly become the frontrunner to win. The biggest challenge for a sci-fi/fantasy actor is to be nominated, after which it all comes down to sample episodes, and voters on judging panels have proven open-minded enough to honor genre performances in the past: Gillian Anderson (“The X-Files”), Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson (“Lost”), Patricia Arquette (“Medium”), and Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones“), to name a few.
Maslany has a secret weapon when it comes time to choose a sample episode: she plays multiple characters with multiple accents and personalities, which gives voters a chance to vote for several performances for the price of one. Actors admire peers who are able to demonstrate versatility, and nothing says versatility like embodying different characters in the same episode, or even the same scene. That factor helped Sally Field win an Emmy for “Sybil,” and more recently Toni Collette in “United States of Tara.”
By the end of the first season finale, Maslany was left playing four roles: British con artist Sarah; uptight Canadian soccer mom Alison; bohemian American scientist Cosima; and the newest addition, a cold and imperious bureaucrat named Rachel. Because the show is about human cloning, there could be several more roles for Maslany in the offing.
Will this be the year “Orphan Black” breaks through at the Emmys? If she’s nominated, do you think Maslany will win? Make your Best Drama Actress predictions below: