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After breakout star Tatiana Maslany helped rocket BBC America’s Orphan Black to cult status as one of television’s most compelling genre series (I ranked it No. 5 on my list of best dramas from 2013), the inevitable next challenge was maintaining the quality, expanding the vision of the series and finding a larger audience.
The ratings information will come later, but nobody should worry about a drop-off in quality this season, as Orphan Black comes out of the gates as strong as ever, picking right up where season one left off and allowing Maslany to thrill anew with her impressive acting chops.
Created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, Orphan Black first got noticed as a vehicle for the unknown Maslany to play seven different characters (though one was very short lived) — if by “play” the understanding is she was far and away the best actress on all of television in 2013 (and thus robbed of the awards she was due).
In any case, after the appeal of Maslany’s talents eventually opened up how well-crafted the show was, viewers began to discover it (along with others in the cast, particularly Jordan Gavaris, whose work as Felix was both funny and dramatic, yet shadowed by Maslany’s incredible multi-part star turn).
Season two should open up Orphan Black to a wider audience and in turn allow the rest of the cast to get some attention. None of that would be likely, however, if Manson and Fawcett weren’t able to keep the story of a human cloning experiment running with a mixture of adrenaline, compassion and intrigue.
Season one started with our introduction to foul-mouthed, street-tough and punkish Sarah Manning (Maslany), who has a bit of the grifter painted into her rebellious streak. After a long absence, she returns to reclaim and be reunited with her young daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler), currently in the care of Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy), the foster mother to both Sarah and Felix (Garvis).
But upon her return, Sarah witnesses the suicide of police detective Beth Childs (Maslany), who looked exactly like Sarah (who then stole Beth’s identity not knowing she was a cop or, for that matter, that either of them were clones).
Season one was essentially a mystery and a thriller, as Sarah slowly discovered what Beth had first found out that they were clones. Sarah also began to realize there were two bigger issues at hand: where they all came from and who was trying to kill them.
In the process, she found prissy housewife Alison, Ph.D. student Cosima, dangerously disturbed (and brainwashed) Helena, plus slowly dying and then murdered Katja — all played by Maslany. Again, it was a tour de force performance that began to hook more notable Hollywood actors, who began to tout Maslany’s awesomeness and the show’s surprisingly strong storytelling bones. As fans were funneled to the show via the rising acclaim for an unknown actress, they stayed because the concept was both intriguing and well-executed.
Working together, Sarah, Alison and Cosima found out that Katja was dying from some genetic defect that caused illness (before Helena killed her; later Sarah took out Helena), and that they all had come from the mysterious Dyad Institute and the work of Dr. Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer).
The person trying to bring all the clones back into the fold is Rachel Duncan (Maslany again), something of an alpha clone.
All the clones have “monitors” from the Dyad Institute (often their husbands), and Paul (Dylan Bruce) was monitoring Beth, the dead detective — and eventually Sarah, who was impersonating Beth. Dyad began trying to control Paul to get to Sarah.
And as viewers learned last season, a religious cult hell-bent on destroying the clones, called the Proleatheans, was on the rampage as well, a story that drives the second season and introduces a number of new, sometimes enigmatic characters.
The beauty of a well done genre series is that viewers can overlook the paranormal element — if the characters are written well enough, viewers aren’t just constantly thinking, “She’s a clone”; they’re thinking, “Oh, that’s Cosima, who is completely different from Alison,” etc. It allows characters — even ones played by the same actress in this instance — to be fleshed out and nuanced. That Manson and Fawcett were able to put the storytelling emphasis on decided “normal” situations — the love of a foster sister and brother, a mother’s love of the child she’s lost, a woman trying to stand out and be her own person in a world where she’s a copy — all humanized Orphan Black and made the series much better than what could have been a limiting premise. The series proved early on that it had more heft and substance than you might expect and managed to be entertaining and smart week to week.
Of course, Manson and Fawcett got awfully lucky by finding Maslany in the first place.
Early returns from season two suggest that Orphan Black will be more compelling than ever, as it becomes more confident in its ability, buoyed by the acclaim, and its laudable understanding that a good story is just that — it doesn’t matter whether it’s a straight, familiar drama. Season two branches out in new directions and, in the process, will probably cement Maslany as a leading actress nominee unlikely to be egregiously snubbed again. But this second season will also benefit from the added buzz, the fact that more fans probably caught up with the story in the off-season, and that its creators have deftly kept all the plates spinning and the jokes clanging off the action. Not a bad trick for a cult show — that now will hopefully find an audience.
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The Fien Print
William Jackson Harper