BBC America's clone thriller remains a niche player, but Tatiana Maslany's multiple roles continue to impress.
Clone club is back in session for season two of BBC America’s sci-fi thriller “Orphan Black,” but the uninitiated will need to start from the beginning. That’s the only way to follow the byzantine conspiracies baked into the heavily serialized storylines or fully appreciate the multifaceted performance headliner Tatiana Maslany delivers as roughly a half-dozen characters in any given episode. The four new installments made available for review waste no time getting late-comers up to speed on plot, instead diving deeper into a somewhat convoluted mythology and introducing even more Maslany clones. Doubling down on that niche appeal should please the base — which the network surely hopes expanded between seasons thanks to steady online buzz and a Golden Globe nomination for Maslany — without doing anything to jeopardize the show’s cachet as a cult sensation.
A succinct summary of the first season isn’t really possible, but the focus fell on street-smart Sarah (Maslany) who escaped a dangerous situation by assuming the identity of mysterious lookalike Beth (Maslany), a police detective who committed suicide without explanation. Over the course of 10 episodes, Sarah discovered she’s one of many clones in a secretive scientific experiment. Some became friends — uptight suburban housewife Alison and funky lesbian scientist Cosima. Others are now foes — animalistic Russian-accented assassin Helena and cold-hearted businesswoman Rachel.
The most impressive feat of those initial episodes wasn’t just that Maslany tackled so many characters, but the work that she and series creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett put into making each clone so specific and unique. By varying everything from hairstyle to body language to accents, they introduced a parade of fully fleshed-out individuals and sparked a not undeserved firestorm of social media acclaim for the lead actress.
One of the primary pleasures of season one was discovering the quirks of each new character and marveling at Maslany’s ability to play them all so effortlessly. That pleasure transforms into something closer to a burden in the early episodes of season two.
With each clone requiring her own subplot and scene partners the narrative has grown overstuffed, and certain elements — most notably the botched satire of Alison’s foray into a community theater musical and the glum ongoing investigations of Beth’s former partner Art (Kevin Hanchard) — become a drag on the overall action. It doesn’t help that so much of the early going involves a tedious search for Sarah’s missing daughter Kira (Skyler Wexler) — a precocious tot whose yet to be determined range of abilities rep one of the show’s bigger open-ended mysteries.
The intrigue ramps up considerably by episode three, including welcome exploration of a creepy cult overseen by new villain Henrik Johanssen (Peter Outerbridge) — his worldview is a menacing mix of science and religion that ties directly into the show’s Big Themes — and the introduction of a mystery man from Sarah’s past (Michiel Huisman, currently a love interest for Daenerys Targaryen on “Game of Thrones”). At the same time, tantalizing clues continue to emerge about the answer to the biggest question of them all: Where did the clones come from anyway?
Maslany remains a remarkably sturdy anchor, though the relatively low-budget, Canadian-shot series continues to suffer from uneven performances among the supporting cast. Scene-stealing standout Jordan Gavaris is still the nearest equal to the leading lady, deftly balancing comic relief quips with emotional depth as Sarah’s brassy best friend Felix. And the sparingly used Maria Doyle Kennedy merits more screen time for the steely reserve she brings to Sarah and Felix’s enigmatic foster mother, Mrs. S.
Then there’s the ongoing technical challenge inherent with storylines demanding Maslany play scenes opposite herself. Although the execution can be truly thrilling — such as a spine-chilling confrontation that closes episode four — it can just as easily result in the gimmicky feel of a superstar duet recorded thousands of miles apart. The creatives may consider the clone-on-clone action a neat trick, but it would be wise to script the encounters sparingly or risk blunting their impact altogether.
Still, “Orphan Black” returns as one of the scrappiest serial dramas currently on TV. It’s an inordinately intelligent sci-fi series in which the flaws only enhance its overall underdog appeal. Judging by these early episodes, season two looks to be another roller-coaster ride. As long as the highs outnumber the lows, the mysteries of clone club could be unraveling for seasons to come.