Photography Courtesy of BBC
On Saturday, April 19 at 9 p.m., the little-seen cult-favorite BBC America series, Orphan Black, returns for its second season.
To explain why Orphan Black is so great requires spoiling a lot of what makes the show tick. So if you want to go in unspoiled, know this: it would easily break my top ten television list (and I watch an unhealthy amount of television).
To dance around why as best as I can: Orphan Black is told in the vein of low-rent, high-concept sci-fi such as The X-Files, and much of its infectious ludicrousness stems from this. One last spoiler-free hard-sell: Orphan Black is a strong contender for the most absorbingly enjoyable show on television.
Like Breaking Bad, Orphan Black is a cleverly plotted, propulsive paced piece of explosively entertaining television, anchored by a tremendous lead performance (Tatiana Maslany), grounded in character-driven drama, and delighted by its own constant audacity.
When the show starts, its sci-fi future is never clear; it begins as a gritty urban thriller and slowly works its way into more genre-based storytelling. Sarah Manning (Maslany) is a woman with a troubled life and a daughter her foster mother doesn’t let her see due to her flighty lifestyle.
While waiting for a train, Sarah sees a woman, who happens to look suspiciously similar to her, jump onto the tracks and kill herself. Sarah then steals this woman’s identity.
Orphan Black is filled with bonkers moments like this that seem to come absolutely out of nowhere but still make perfect sense.
The series is founded on a sense of consequences. Sarah does one thing on impulse which spins out and leads to more and more problems that need to be resolved. The series takes a gleeful pleasure in cornering its characters into improbable circumstances that they then have to get out of by the skin of their teeth. Sarah quickly discovers that this woman, Beth, had baggage in her life that is far more complicated and overwhelming than anything Sarah’s had to deal with. And that’s not even the half of it.
Maslany does the single best performance by an actress on television. This isn’t immediately apparent, but it quickly becomes clear as Maslany begins playing an increasingly complex number of roles. The big early reveal is that Sarah is only one of many clones of drastically different personas. Maslany’s brilliance is seamlessly making us forget that she is playing 90 percent of the characters. There are scenes where the clones are together and the audience really believes that they all are distinct characters with unique personalities. Maslany’s genius shows most strongly in the moments where the clones start pretending they are each other. The way Maslany layers the different performances is remarkable.
Above all, Orphan Black is a damn fun show to watch. It is a series predicated on mounting twists and turns, and trying to stay two steps ahead with limited knowledge. But unlike other mythology-heavy, devil-may-care shows, Orphan Black is the rare show that has a handle on where it’s going. The show’s plotting is thought through on a large scale and it always earns its intense forward drive and bold narrative directions.