The Dumb Charms of Orphan Black

Season Two of BBC America's wildly entertaining drama about human clones remains as clever as ever—even if sometimes, it seems exactly the opposite.
BBC America

Orphan Black had me worried for a bit.

The trailer for the second season of BBC America’s relentlessly entertaining series made the show look like a dark, slick techno-drama—all rain and trip-hop and guns. Saturday’s premiere opens in that mode: Protagonist Sarah Manning runs frantically through a storm, takes refuge in an empty diner, and has a violent confrontation with goons who seem like they’d be pals with The Matrix’s Agent Smith.

Uh-oh. Had Orphan Black decided to go all-in on the dystopian-thriller vibe you'd expect from a show about human clones hunted by religious cults and scientific cabals? If so, that would mean ditching a lot of what made the first season so lovable: the cheeky humor, the manic tone switches, the satirical edge, and the excellent hijinks provided by Tatiana Maslany playing more than a half-dozen different characters with distinct personalities.

Luckily, after the premiere's title sequence, we learn that this remains basically the same series as before. Sarah goes to look for her brother at a gay club that preposterously fuses the broadest and most dated stereotypes imaginable—it's a warehouse filled with lasers, house music, leather, ecstasy, and assless chaps. Felix, Sarah's foster sibling, is annoyed at his sister’s intrusion: “I’m in the midst of a five-way!”

If this were any other show, you might bristle at all the clichés on display, both in the noir opening and in the sequence at the club—and, basically, in every other scene. Nothing is subtle on Orphan Black. The ex-military boyfriend protector-type is a square-jawed Ken Doll. The cops come in biracial duos slinging sub-Law & Order banter (“.45 to the sixth chakra,” says a deputy describing a murder). The nefarious cloners espouse a philosophy called “neolutionism” and follow a bald visionary whose first name is Aldous.

You might bristle, too, at how dumb the show itself seems to be at times. Sarah, our main clone, is an impulsive grifter whose instincts always, always turn out to be right. Plots often develop with unrelated characters running into one another. Cosima, the ostensibly brainy clone, continually risks herself and her friends so that she can keep making out with the hot French girl working for the enemy.

But that lunkheadedness helps make Orphan Black work. Partly that’s because the simplistic, familiar elements allow viewers to focus on the wild plot, in which Sarah and the other clones attempt to puzzle out why they exist and whether they might be in danger. The ever-mounting number of betrayals, conspiracies, and revelations make the show occasionally reach Scandal-esque heights of plot-driven confusion; that confusion would only be worse if, for example, you couldn't just assume that the newly introduced clone with severe blonde bangs and an immaculate glass-lined office is an icy businesswoman who can’t be trusted.

More importantly, the show knows it's working with clichés. Orphan Black self-consciously apes Maslany’s multiple-personality routine, switching between a dizzying array of genres but injecting them all with almost-subversive humanity and humor. The silly police-procedural stuff is, indeed, a farce on police procedurals: After so many seasons of Dick Wolf productions and CSI, the roles are so rote that someone can pretend to be a veteran cop for weeks without much trouble. The plot line for soccer-mom clone Alison sends up suburban life and domestic comedies—it’s like Modern Family, if Claire Dunphy let her overbearing neighbor be killed by an Insinkerator. The Blade Runner-ish dystopian stuff helps remind viewers of the little-remembered fact that even badass sci-fi heroes are just people who would probably prefer to be living their lives, raising their kids, and avoiding their exes.

A show about genetic engineering does, as you might imagine, raise philosophical questions, but I’ll admit I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them. These clone are human beings, and the folks who regard them as property or experiments or abominations are pretty clearly evil. This premiere introduces the word "eugenics" into the mix; one character says she doesn't think it's a dirty word, but it's hard to imagine viewers will feel the same.

But who wants to ponder deeper meanings when there are Maslany’s talents to marvel at? The best scenes are ones where she plays one clone disguising herself as another clone—it's not often you get to see an actress play a character parodying that actress's own acting. A prime example of that trick comes in Saturday's season opener. I won’t give the details away, but suffice it to say that the scene offers definitive evidence that Orphan Black hasn’t forgotten how to have fun.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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