It’s easy for Americans to become overly impressed with English-speaking imports, in part because we have generally been treated to only the best the U.K. and Canada have to offer. Yet the appetite for more original content is helping to level the playing field and eliminate any inferiority complex. BBC America is contributing a one-two punch toward that end with two mediocre dramas, the miniseries “Spies of Warsaw” and semi-sci-fi thriller “Orphan Black,” premiering within a few days of each other. Both manage to largely squander fine leads — the first being dramatically turgid, the second borderline nonsensical before its plot begins to coalesce into a familiar “X-Files” mode around episode three.
“Spies of Warsaw” should be a slam dunk, pairing David Tennant (“Dr. Who”) and Janet Montgomery (of CBS’ short-lived “Made in Jersey”) in a pre-World War II romance, as he plays Jean-Francois Mercier, a French aristocrat functioning as a covert operative seeking intel on the Nazis. In the course of his work, he meets Anna (Montgomery), a lawyer for the League of Nations, and falls madly in love with her.
The cloak-and-dagger stuff, however, proves terribly mild, and the romance stiff and hackneyed. The two actually begin their tryst on a train, and have to spout lines to each other like, “Our lives aren’t as simple as they are in your bed.” About the only really nice thing “Spies” has going for it is Rob Lane’s bluesy, melancholy score.
Adapted by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais from Alan Furst’s novel, and directed by Coky Giedroyc, “Spies” covers four hours over two nights. The story picks up a bit in energy and pacing in night two — as the outbreak of war grows nearer — but never really sparks to life. And Tennant looks so pained and sober throughout that you half wish he could slip into his Time Lord role, spin back the clock and inject some life into this slow-moving exercise.
As for “Orphan Black,” the series stars Tatiana Maslany (“The Vow”) as Sarah, a down-on-her-luck, one-time foster kid who sees her near-twin leap to her death off a train platform. The other woman has a “nice haircut” and a “pretty nice life,” by all appearances, so Sarah naturally assumes her identity and tries to clean out her bank account. Soon, though, she discovers the deceased was in fact a cop (aren’t they all?), caught up in some kind of intricate plot.
While this isn’t made explicit in the pilot, after a couple more hours it’s explained (vaguely) that the whole thing has something to do with cloning, with a lot of women who share Sarah’s face running around. But other than enjoying Maslany in multiple characters, wigs and accents, there’s nothing so distinctive about the plot as to provide an incentive to hang around long enough to sort out all the gory details regarding who might want to eliminate them.
Bottom line: “Spies” sputters, and “Orphan Black” is essentially just an English-accented version of the CW’s since-departed “Ringer,” with an additional sci-fi vibe thrown in for good measure. (For some reason, “Futureworld” comes to mind.)
Put them together, and the two reinforce an old showbiz adage — the one about success having a thousand fathers, and failure being an “Orphan.”
Spies of Warsaw
(Miniseries; BBC America, Wed. April 3 & 10, 9 p.m.)
Cast: David Tennant, Janet Montgomery, Marcin Dorocinski, Ludger Pistor, Burn Gorman, Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Piotr Baumann, Miroslaw Zbrojewicz, Ellie Haddington.
Filmed in Poland by Fresh Pictures and Apple Film. Executive producers, Richard Fell, Chris Aird, Jamie Laurenson, Dariusz Jablonski, Judith Louis, Ben Donald, Roy Ackerman; co-executive producers, Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais; director, Coky Giedroyc; writers, Clement, La Frenais; based on the novel by Alan Furst; camera, Wojciech Szepel; production designer, Tom Burton; editor, Gareth C. Scales; music, Rob Lane; casting, Jill Trevellick, Bob Morris. 4 HOURS
(Series; BBC America, Sat. March 30, 9 p.m.)
Cast: Tatiana Maslany, Jordan Gavaris, Dylan Bruce, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Kevin Hanchard, Skyler Wexler, Michael Mando.
Filmed in Ontario by Temple Street Prods. in association with BBC America and Space. Executive producers, John Fawcett, Graeme Manson, Ivan Schneeberg, David Fortier; co-executive producers, Karen Walton, Kerry Appleyard; producer, Claire Welland; director, Fawcett; writer, Manson; camera, Aaron Morton; production designer, Ian Brock; editor, Brett Sullivan; music, Trevor Yuile; casting, Forrest & Forrest. 60 MIN.