Before we dive in, let’s take a moment to appreciate the thoroughly unexpected phenomenon that was Orphan Black’s inaugural season. Here’s a show that truly came out of nowhere in an Internet-dominated era where the phrase “came out of nowhere” holds little relevance. Having heard none of the previous buzz going into the first episode, I—like many others, it seems—tuned into this new BBC America sci-fi program primarily because an episode of Doctor Who had just finished and the first few images of the show looked enticing. (Also, full disclosure, I thought the lead actress was cute.) Little did I know that I would soon embark on a roller coaster ride of brilliantly sharp genre storytelling the likes of which I hadn’t experienced on TV since Fringe was at its prime.
Alongside Orange is the New Black, Orphan Black was perhaps the biggest television-based surprise of 2013. It was thrilling, sexy, funny—adjectives people don’t normally throw around when discussing sci-fi programs. What’s more, it was all anchored by an extraordinary breakthrough performance (or performances) from an unknown Canadian actress named Tatiana Maslany, whose ability to juggle several disparate characters with such seeming ease was nothing short of astounding.
With a 10 episode order, the first season of Orphan Black played like some kind of serialized version of a massive feature film, with the writing and production displaying a delicious mix of Philip K. Dick, Alfred Hitchcock and The X-Files.
As the show returns tonight for its second season premiere, entitled “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed,” there are the unavoidable questions. But what it all boils down to is this—is the show just as good as it was that first year, or was that season a Heroes-/Homeland-like fluke? Of course, the sense of discovery, which certainly shaped the way in which people latched onto the show in the first place, is no longer present here. Still, while I always try to manage my own expectations, I think it’s safe to say that if you enjoyed year one of the show, you’ll be very happy with this newest entry in the ever-evolving saga of Sarah Manning and her clone siblings.
The show picks up seconds after the conclusion of the previous episode with Sarah, having finally put an end to her murderous birth-twin Helena, discovering that both her daughter Kira and foster mother, Siobhan have been abducted. Sarah’s mind naturally goes to Dyad, the nefarious company responsible for monitoring the clones. Her suspicions are further confirmed when she receives a call from Rachel Duncan, the clone who works on behalf of Dyad. At a loss for what to do, Sarah once again locates clones Cosima and Alison and comes up with a strategy for getting into the Dyad headquarters. This, of course, involves Sarah masquerading as Cosima at a party. You see, it’s layered performances like this that makes me wonder how Maslany does not already have every acting award available.
Much like Sarah herself, the show continues to feel like it’s forever on the run. Normally, I would complain about such breakneck pacing and express concern that the show will run out of gas before it reaches the finish line. One of the great things about Orphan Black’s 10-episode season, however, is that it can actually afford to keep up this sort of pace. As such, the writers can indulge in jumping around to different plotlines, whether it be Sarah finding a way into Dyad, the police attempting to capture Sarah or Alison’s amusing subplot (we’ll get to that) without ever feeling overly travelogue-y as certain episodes of Game of Thrones sometimes do.
Despite its moments of solid action and drama, however, one of the great joys of Orphan Black is its hearty sense of humor. Never is any episode of the show so leaden or self-serious that it fails to include at least a few great gags from either Jordan Gavaris’ Felix or Maslany’s Alison.
Speaking of Alison, one of the more brilliant (if somewhat polarizing) plotlines last season involved her relentless pursuit of her Monitor, a mission that ultimately culminated in the senseless death of her neighbor/rival Aynsley. Here, the writers take her back to lighter material with the revelation that our soccer mom is now participating in a community musical theater production. And, yes, the idea of Alison doing musical theater is just as funny in execution as it is in concept. If that weren’t enough, one of the greatest set pieces of the episode involves her being attacked by two agents and promptly going on a pepper-spraying rampage. In any other show, Alison’s random excursions would seem overly tangential to the main storyline; here, they serve as an excellent counterpoint to the show’s more pathos-filled plotlines.
In explaining Orphan Black’s success, it’s easy to point to the show’s cool mythology, sleek look and labyrinthine plotting. And though it certainly has all these things (in droves, I might add), intriguing mythologies and twisty plotlines are a dime a dozen these days. What the show emphasizes, and what this Season Two premiere highlights, is how integral strong character work is to a show’s foundation. Together, both the show writers and Maslany have crafted a great roster of characters that are just flat-out fun to watch. Indeed, at times, the overarching plotline involving Dyad plays second banana to simply witnessing Maslany’s clones work off one another in entertaining ways. (Hell, I’m only half-joking when I say I’d gladly watch a whole show built around the Smash-like drama inherent in Alison’s theater group.) Far from being the most expensive show, Orphan Black is—if nothing else—a great lesson in economy.
“Nature Under Constraint and Vexed” doesn’t feel so much like a season premiere as it does yet another installment of an ongoing movie. Such consistency could prove problematic if the show were to ever grow stale, but, judging from what this episode introduces, that won’t be an issue anytime soon.
Welcome back Orphan Black. It’s been too long.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.