TV News & Reviews

Is ‘Orphan Black’ on the verge of becoming a mainstream hit?

Clones Sarah and Helena, both played by Tatiana Maslany, make a tenuous connection in BBC America’s “Orphan Black.” Season three premieres Saturday.
Clones Sarah and Helena, both played by Tatiana Maslany, make a tenuous connection in BBC America’s “Orphan Black.” Season three premieres Saturday. Jan Thijs

Fans of “Orphan Black” have a secret. And they want to let more people in on it.

We are in a golden age of “genre” entertainment — that know-it-when-you-see-it umbrella category of supernatural, superhero and science fiction. Cult genre hit “Orphan Black” returns Saturday for its third season premiere on BBC America, but it hasn’t yet broken out of its core fandom and into the pop culture mainstream.

That puzzles viewers who have marveled at the intricately plotted series, and particularly at its standout lead performance by Tatiana Maslany.

The Canadian actress plays a young woman who discovers she is one of (at least) a dozen unwitting subjects of a science experiment — the results of an ultra-secretive cloning project directed by the mysterious Dyad Institute.

The clones have grown up separated from one another around the globe, each in vastly different environments.

The protagonist is Sarah Manning, a grifter who unexpectedly stumbles upon one of her fellow genetic identicals just before the woman commits suicide by jumping into the path of a train. Sarah impulsively steals her purse and assumes her identity, setting the intrigue into motion.

The storyline quickly becomes twisted, with Maslany’s performance — or performances — as the glue that holds “Orphan Black” together.

“This show would not be a tenth as compelling if it weren’t for the performances of Tatiana Maslany and the team of stand-ins and technicians that make her so believable in all of her roles, and in the way all of her personae interact,” said Matt Jacobson, associate professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas, via email.

“Heck, the way she makes all of members of the Clone Club different — even in scenes where she is playing one character playing another character — her performances are pretty breathtaking.”

Maslany so fully inhabits the quirks and mannerisms of the individual clones that it’s easy to forget you’re watching the same woman playing Sarah, brilliant biologist Cosima, uptight alcoholic soccer mom Alison, damaged cult victim Helena, and many more, often together in the same scene.

“I do that all the time actually, especially with Cosima, for some reason,” said Lauren Davis, senior editor of the science fiction and fantasy website io9.com. “I sit there and think, ‘Who is that actress, what’s her name?’ It’s really funny. I was just re-watching chunks of Season 2, and there were so many times you’d see her face at a certain angle and think, ‘That woman really looks like Sarah.’”

Maslany accomplishes the differentiations of the characters most convincingly through accents, body language and other acting techniques, as opposed to obvious makeup and wardrobe tricks. Sarah might outsmart a clone’s own boyfriend and coworkers, but viewers are never unclear about who’s who.

The appeal of the show is more than its acting, though. Genre series can rely on monsters and gadgets and do just fine (hello “Grimm,” “Stargate SG-1” or even the original “Twilight Zone”).

But “Orphan Black” resonates on deeper levels. It has more intellectual aspirations than most sci-fi, addressing real-world themes with the grown-up seriousness of “Mad Men,” “True Detective” and the rest of today’s best prestige TV.

David Warmflash, an astrobiologist and physician who recently wrote about the accuracy of the show’s science for the Genetic Literacy Project website, thinks “Orphan Black” earns its gravitas with an intelligent exploration of important current scientific and moral debates.

“What the show is really about is not the ethics of human reproductive cloning, but human rights,” he said in an email interview with The Star. “The real problem is that (the clones) were subjects of human experimentation without their permission, that their genetic sequences are patented and owned by a corporation, and a string of other issues related to privacy. Those issues are central to our society, whether or not we engage in human reproductive cloning. And that’s the measure of good science fiction, to take a creative, futuristic premise and use it as a framework for discussing the most important issues of our real-life society.”

Warmflash noted that while a lot of sci-fi makes up its own rules of physics and biology, “Orphan Black” largely hews to reality. Some have groused about a plot point revolving around the inaccurate idea that clones would share the same fingerprints, but that’s the rare counter-example.

“When it started, ‘Orphan Black’ had to decide whether it wanted to be the ‘Star Trek’ or the ‘Lost in Space’ of biology sci-fi and clearly they chose the ‘Star Trek’ model,” he said. “That’s evident, not only because ‘Orphan Black’ is extremely accurate scientifically, but importantly because of the social commentary that’s central to every episode.”

Human emotions are also as central to the series as genetics. Audiences care deeply about the clones, their predicament and their relationships to one another.

“It’s just a really interesting show about identity,” said Davis. “Certainly, family and identity are huge themes of the show. We saw family explored a lot with Rachel (the only clone who has been in on the secret project) — what makes a family, and what makes you part of a family. But also the things that make us us.

Yet “Orphan Black” is still struggling with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” syndrome. Joss Whedon’s late-’90s show was a profoundly adult meditation on power, family and maturity, but many critics and viewers were slow to warm to it, dismissing it as a silly monster action series.

“Hey, Emmy Voters, Stop Ignoring ‘Orphan Black,’” said a headline on NPR’s pop culture blog Monkey See last year. But Emmy hasn’t bitten — yet.

“I think that critical resistance to sci-fi and fantasy entertainment is a leftover from the last century, when both genres were seen as ‘kid’s stuff,’” said Jacobson. “However, changes in the way society views this kind of entertainment, and the way the digital age has made it possible to produce and distribute quality sci-fi and fantasy programming, means that there is wider distribution and acceptance toward sci-fi and fantasy than ever before.”

The question now is whether the complex “Orphan Black” mythology can stand up as more episodes unfold. Genre classics such as “Twin Peaks,” “The X-Files” and “Lost” derailed when their central mysteries unspooled messily, giving the impression that the people in the driver’s seat were making things up as they went along.

Davis says the creative minds behind the show tell her they have had a roadmap from the beginning, though some adjustments have been made along the way.

Jacobson thinks the rise of quality television means shows that create a deep mythology have to plan carefully — and he has high hopes for where “Orphan Black” is heading.

“I do think that the world-building in ‘Orphan Black’ is broader and deeper than that of ‘Twin Peaks’ or ‘The X-Files.’” he said. “With the rise of non-network, quality TV in the last few years, I think that producers realize that they need to think about plotting out reveals for the ‘long game.’ We’re still finding out just how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Where to watch

The season three premiere of “Orphan Black” airs at 8 p.m. Saturday on BBC America, AMC, IFC, WE and Sundance. An “Orphan Black” marathon begins at 11 p.m. Friday on IFC. Past episodes also can be streamed on Amazon.com.

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