Last year, an awards-season backlash seemed to be developing against the underdog BBC America clone conspiracy drama “Orphan Black,” even though the frontlash for this absorbing Canadian production, which kicked off its second season over the weekend, continues to gather steam. Could chameleon Tatiana Maslany pull off an Emmy nod this year when nominees are announced on July 10? (Reviews for the new season thus far are quite strong.)
Naysayers have suggested that the elaborately plotted show is too coyly fond of its own contrivances; that it races ahead and leaves its audience in the dust. To one commenter on Deadline, this post-meta playfulness typed the show as “hipsterish” and thus problematic for Emmy voters.
Initially, and rightly, a lot of the praise for the show settled on its Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe-nominated star, the amazingly versatile Tatiana Maslany, who is instantly engaging as Sarah Manning, a kohl-eyed, British-accented punk. Witnessing the suicide in a Toronto subway station of a well-dressed career type who, apart from her neatly tailored suit looks exactly like her, Sarah impulsively decided to combat her own financial and child custody woes by stealing first the dead woman’s purse and then her identity when the series began.
Making more out of a juicy multiple role that any actress since Sally Field, who scored a career breakthrough in 1976 in the mini-series “Sybil,” Maslany’s emotional transparency carries us smoothly into the lives of the five additional “genetic identicals,” who burst into this narrative juggling act one after another, threatening disaster. Chief among them is the aforementioned Beth, who, inconveniently, turns out to be a Toronto cop, a tough lifestyle to fake. Corn-rowed Cosima is a brainy Minnesota graduate student; Alison a high-strung suburban soccer mom.
BBC America’s website also lists several instances in which clones impersonate one another: “Sarah as Beth, Alison as Sarah, Sarah as Katja, Hanna as Sarah as Beth.”
There are additional layers: Each of the clones has been assigned a “minder” whose identity is initially concealed, both from the clones and from the audience. And there are at least two sinister organizations at work behind the scenes, one pro- and one anti-clone. The presentation of Matt Frewer (“Max Headroom”), as the media-star pop scientist Dr. Aldous Leekie of The Dyad Institute, guru of the body-modifying “Neolution” movement, suggests that the creators of “Orphan Black” have studied the work of their clinical genius countryman, David Cronenberg.
Last season’s “Variations Under Domestication” was pivotal. (The episode titles are quotations from Charles Darwin.) Alison’s house in suburban Scarborough, during a chirpy weekend potluck, fills up like Groucho’s stateroom in “A Night at the Opera” as clones, monitors, foster brothers, boyfriends, ex-boyfriends and nosy neighbors squeeze in, running up and down the stairs and in and out o bedrooms, snooping on CATV feeds. The culmination has housewife Alison passing out drunk so that cockney Sarah has to pull her hair back and play the role. This is storytelling as choreography.
“Orphan Black” is not the kind of smarty-pants show that flaunts its cleverness, that wants its audience to feel slow. Creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson have front-loaded the set-up because they want to never be at a loss for something cool or startling to spring on us. They are sci-fi horror showmen relishing every ta-da. Every time a door opens on this show, practically, the storytelling takes off in a new direction.
“Orphan Black” plays its narrative games to the hilt, but purely to keep us amused, without a smirk — and it’s Maslany, fully committed to whichever role she’s playing at any given moment, who keeps us engaged, who gives us something to hold onto. Name one other Actress in a Drama Series this or any season who has carried a show more definitively than she does. This is not the kind of work that really needs to be validated by an Emmy. More like the other way around.