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Friday, April 18, 2014

BBC America’s ‘Orphan Black’ returns, engineered to near-perfection


Rachel (Tatiana Maslany) and Sarah (Tatiana Maslany, again) in “Orphan Black.”

“Orphan Black,” BBC America’s satisfying but strenuously kinetic
drama about a sisterhood of clones confronting their shared bio-lab
origin, is a fascinating show — or, more accurately, it’s always just
fascinating enough.

Which is in itself fascinating to those of us who spend time
puzzling over the ways one show clicks and another doesn’t: How is “Orphan Black
(which returns for a second season Saturday night) so good while other
shows that look and seem a lot like it wind up being so blah?

Much of it has to do with the bravura performance of its star,
Tatiana Maslany, who plays all the clones — a grueling task that asks a
whole lot more of her in every scene than simply submitting to a series
of wig and costume changes. Starting with the lead character of Sarah
Manning and continuing from there, Maslany portrays each of these women
down to their bones, even as the show’s creators (Graeme Manson and John
Fawcett) give her more clones to play.

In the first season, a
reprobate Sarah witnesses the train-platform suicide of a woman who
looks just like her. Desperate for cash and shelter, Sarah takes on the
dead woman’s identity, briefly becoming Beth, a police detective, and
living in Beth’s apartment with Beth’s boyfriend, Paul (Dylan Bruce).

by her rambunctious foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), Sarah
discovered that she, Beth and an unknown number of others were conceived
in a “neolution” cloning project at the Dyad Institute in 1984. These
clones include Alison, an alcoholic soccer mom; Cosima, a lesbian grad
student in evolutionary biology; and Helena X, a project anomaly (she’s
blond) from Ukraine.

As Sarah and the others learned more about
the project that created them (and discovered that certain people
they’ve trusted — husbands, partners — had been assigned by the Dyad
Institute to monitor them), “Orphan Black” became an artfully layered
ad­ven­ture that effortlessly weaved in elements of a soap opera —
torrid affairs, switched identities, a foster mother who knows more than
she lets on. Paul’s discovery that Beth was really Sarah didn’t
necessarily end their relationship, nor did Sarah’s discovery that Paul
was hired by Dyad to monitor Beth.

Meanwhile (“Orphan Black”
relentlessly brings on the “meanwhiles”), Sarah is apparently the only
Dyad clone who has been able to have a child — a preternaturally
intuitive young daughter named Kira, who is of great interest not only
to the scientists at Dyad but to a bolo-tie-wearing religious cult that
is preoccupied with bioengineering. Last season’s finale left Sarah in a
panicked attempt to find Kira, who was kidnapped.

Oh, it just
sounds silly when I type it up, and I’ve probably already offended an
obsessive fan who will write in to correct me on a minor detail or two.
You’re better off just binge-watching the first season so that you can
try to follow along with the new episodes.

Without spoiling
anything, I found myself pleasantly surprised in the first four new
episodes that “Orphan Black” has apparently just scraped the surface —
not only with the overall narrative arc but with the depth of character
development in each of the clones that Maslany plays. “You must have
really gotten under [Dyad’s] skin,” a character tells Sarah.

“They sort of got under mine first,” she replies.

a way, it’s the TV equivalent of a Lorde album — fresh, cool, current,
vaguely foreign and yet commercial-friendly. The show presses the right
nodes in certain TV watchers — including female viewers who still pine
for the next “Alias,”
perhaps? Or male viewers on an endless quest to find a girl who can
hang? Or sci-fi fans who think SyFy’s shows are too shallow? Or
thoughtful viewers attuned to a theme that is aggressively and
excitingly anti-corporate?

Like the clones Maslany is playing,
“Orphan Black” also possesses a genetic flaw. It is chewing so
voraciously through its story lines — at such a rapid pace — that it
often verges on collapse. We’ve all seen this happen before: A show lays
out such a frantic premise in its first season that by the second
season it simply flies apart. One way “Orphan Black” gets around this is
in its possibility that Maslany could always have a new, undiscovered
clone to play.

Critical applause and viewer fanfare for “Orphan
Black” run just about as hot as the show. To some degree, it has
probably been overpraised, which certainly beats the alternative. In its
wildest dreams, ABC’s spotty “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” would possess just a fraction of “Orphan Black’s” momentum and sensibility.

less drawn to the often ingenious, always full-bore clone story than I
am drawn to admiring “Orphan Black’s” central production value — that
antiseptically sleek, brutally efficient Euro style of scripted
programming that in so many other shows winds up feeling as cheap as
particle-board furniture. Even the PBS airing of the British TV hit “Sherlock” seemed this season
to push its ultra-mod pace and vibe into the realm of overworked
gimmickry. Thus far, “Orphan Black” is as beautiful and elegant as
stainless steel.

Although creators Manson and Fawcett have
maintained that their show is meant to be set in an urban city in a
place they call “Generica,” it is quintessentially and undeniably
Canadian; even its grittiness and violence have a way of looking clean
and orderly. This style of no-style is often distracting in
Canadian-made shows that clutter American cable networks. Somehow,
“Orphan Black” is one of the few shows to make provenance irrelevant. It
really has been engineered in a lab.

 - The Washington Post

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