Clone Drama 'Orphan Black' Returns, As Complex And Complicated As Ever

Apr 17, 2015
Originally published on April 17, 2015 3:25 pm

For fans of BBC America's majestically complicated drama Orphan Black, this might be the toughest task they face all year: Explaining to newbies what the heck is going on just before the new season starts on Saturday.

Spoiler alert: Several plot points from the new season are discussed below

The series started with Sarah Manning, a con artist and onetime street urchin, stumbling upon a well-dressed woman who looked exactly like her, crying on a train platform — just before jumping in front of an oncoming train.

Turns out, the woman was Sarah's clone; over the show's first two seasons, Sarah discovers she is one of at least 10 clones created covertly. (Because, you know, human cloning is illegal and all).

Sarah and almost all her clones are played by Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany, who somehow has not won an Emmy or Golden Globe despite portraying so many people so seamlessly. And yes, I know that observation is a dead horse, well-beaten.

Still, Maslany's skill is evident from the first scene in Saturday's episode, where she plays a pregnant clone from Ukraine named Helena, enjoying a baby shower and cookout organized by her clone sisters.

Four of the six people in this scene are played by Maslany, who closed out last season by taping a clone dance party featuring four of the clones boogieing down.

Producers say the actress loves the challenge of playing different clones in different roles, and there are several scenes in the new season where she plays clones pretending to be other clones in a mind-bending display.

I suspect one reason why Maslany hasn't been showered in Emmy gold is because academy members may see her work on Orphan Black as some kind of gimmick.

But the best compliment to her skills is the fact that, often you simply forget that she is playing multiple roles. These are all distinct characters who just happen to look alike, which is an amazing achievement on its own.

As the story progresses, Sarah and her clones discover there were also several male clones made, including a crazed soldier named Rudy.

"You're a legend, Sarah Manning, you're made of the good stuff, aren't you?" Rudy asks, quickly letting Sarah know that he is aware of all the people close to her, including her young daughter, Kira.

Rudy and the other males want something from Sarah and her sisters. They're dangerous, tattooed soldiers from a military venture known as Project Castor.

Sarah learns more during a phone call with another clone, a scientist named Cosima.

"They're purpose-raised, untraceable, the perfect ghost soldiers," Cosima tells Sarah about the Project Castor boys, as the camera switches between the two of them.

That's a kind of scene Orphan Black often uses, allowing Maslany to play two different clones talking by phone in two different places.

But it can also be hard to follow. I even had trouble picking sound clips for the radio version of this story, because so many scenes required so much background knowledge to understand.

That's part of the fun of Orphan Black, which pulls fans down a rabbit hole of clones, clone creators, friends and villains.

But it's also the show's biggest weakness. The parade of clones and situations makes it difficult for new or casual fans to stay connected. And if the mythology gets too dense, viewers can stop caring about the characters.

Beginning at midnight Friday, there's a marathon of old episodes on IFC and Amazon is offering access to the first season free, if you want to bone up.

It takes work to get the most out of watching Orphan Black, especially this season, as the show's producers push the envelope of how many characters and how many storylines they can pack into a single series.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's going to be a huge weekend for fans of "Orphan Black." This is BBC America's drama about a bunch of clones fighting the organization that created them. Well, season three starts tomorrow, and NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says one of the show's most distinctive elements - its twisted plot - might also be its fundamental problem.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: For fans of "Orphan Black," it might be the toughest task they face all year - explaining to newbies with the heck is going on just before a new season starts. It all begins with Sarah Manning, a con artist and one-time street urchin, who stumbles on a well-dressed woman who looks exactly like her crying on a train platform, just before that woman jumps in front of an oncoming train.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORPHAN BLACK")

TATIANA MASLANY: (As Beth Childs) (Screams).

DEGGANS: Turns out the woman was a clone of Sarah, who eventually discovers she's one of at least 10 clones created covertly. Sarah and almost all her clones are played by Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany, who somehow has not won an Emmy or a Golden Globe, despite playing so many people so seamlessly. Maslany's skill is evident in the first scene from Saturday's episode, where she plays a pregnant clone from Ukraine named Helena, enjoying a baby shower and cookout organized by her clone sisters. Maslany is four of the six people in this scene, including suburban soccer-mom Alison, who speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORPHAN BLACK")

MASLANY: (As Alison Hendrix) This is your special day, Helena - you and your precious cargo.

(As Cosima Niehaus) Dude, you look awesome.

(As Helena) You look awesome, also. You're well?

(As Cosima Niehaus) Oh, yeah. I'm, like, way better thanks to science.

DEGGANS: Sarah and her clones discover there were also several male clones made, including a crazed soldier named Rudy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORPHAN BLACK")

ARI MILLEN: (As Rudy) You're a legend, Sarah Manning.

MASLANY: (As Sarah Manning) You've got a name or a serial number or some [expletive] I can call you?

MILLEN: (As Rudy) You're made of the good stuff, aren't you?

DEGGANS: Rudy and the other males want something from Sarah and her sisters. They're dangerous, tattooed soldiers from a military venture known as Project Castor. Here, Sarah learns more during a phone call with another clone, a scientist named Cosima.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORPHAN BLACK")

MASLANY: (As Cosima Niehaus) According to the myth, Castor was a warrior horsemen, a bit of a badass by the looks of it.

(As Sarah Manning) That fits with what Cal found. He says the horse tattoo is some kind of black ops insignia.

(As Cosima Niehaus) That makes sense. They're purpose-raised (ph), untraceable, the perfect ghost soldiers.

DEGGANS: That's the kind of scene "Orphan Black" often uses - allowing Maslany to play two different clones talking by phone in two different places. But it can also be hard to follow. I even had trouble picking sound clips that made sense because so many scenes required so much background knowledge to understand. That's part of the fun of "Orphan Black," which pulls fans down a rabbit-hole of clones, clone creators, friends and villains. But it's also the show's biggest weakness. The parade of clones and situations makes it difficult for new or casual fans to stay connected. Today, there's a marathon of old episodes on IFC and Amazon is offering access to the first season free if you want to bone up. It takes work to get the most out of watching "Orphan Black," especially this season as the show's producers push the envelope of how many characters and how many storylines they can pack into a single series. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT GO")

IDINA MENZEL: (Singing) Let it go, let it go... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.