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BBC's 'Orphan Black' returns, engineered to near-perfection

“Orphan Black,” BBC America’s satisfying but exhaustingly kinetic drama about a sisterhood of clones confronting their shared bio-lab origin, returns for a second season Saturday. Tatiana Maslany, starting with the lead character of Sarah Manning, plays all the clones at once, a grueling task. Photo by Steve Wilkie/ BBC America )

Hank Stuever
(c) 2014, The Washington Post.
"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).

Aided 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.

In 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.

I'm 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 has 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.

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"Orphan Black" (one hour) returns Saturday at 10 p.m. on BBC America.

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