A year ago, “Orphan Black” snuck up on me. Like another female-centric show with “Black” at the end of its title, it had a relatively unknown lead, and seemed an afterthought among its network's original offerings. (At Netflix, “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development” consumed all the PR oxygen; for BBC America, it was “Copper.”) And like “Orange Is the New Black,” it turned out to be a pleasant surprise of large proportions, featuring a star-making performance – really, a series of performances, as con artist Sarah and her many clones – by Tatiana Maslany, a deft balance of sci-fi and character study and comedy, and an eagerness to keep the plot moving as swiftly and efficiently as possible.
I look back on that first season and can imagine the equivalent FOX or CW drama waiting until its first season was halfway over before Sarah found out that she, housewife Alison, scientist Cosima, cop Beth, assassin Helena and the rest of the lookalikes were all clones. For that matter, I can see that version of the show devoting a full season to Sarah impersonating Beth while evading the suspicion of her co-workers. Instead, “Orphan Black” creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett gave us the clone info quickly, had Sarah turn in her badge before the first season was out, and moved to quickly introduce a half dozen other crazy story threads and characters.
It's a show that doesn't mess around. The creative team knows that Maslany can do virtually anything – which includes playing one clone impersonating another and making that clear beyond the hairstyle and wardrobe – understands that the audience for this kind of series has been burned too often and made too impatient by other shows, and that with only 10 episodes to produce per season, there's no need to drag out any one phase of the show.
Still, there was a part of me that wondered if I might be disappointed with the second season, simply because the surprise was gone. I knew how great Maslany was, I had picked my favorite clone (#Alison4Ever), I had seen the show win awards and wind up on a lot of critics' top 10 lists. Would my expectations now be too unfairly high for what is, at its heart, just a clever and fun little piece of pulp fiction?
Fortunately, “Orphan Black” didn't need lowered expectations to impress me yet again. I've seen four episodes of season 2 (it debuts tomorrow night at 9), and they're a lot of fun. We get more time with the haughty and cruel “pro clone” Rachel, get a better sense of the religious fundamentalists who caused so much trouble last season, advance the relationship between Cosima and her observer/girlfriend Delphine (Evelyne Brochu), and the friendship between Sarah's brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) and Alison, and add some intriguing new characters (one of them played by the suddenly ubiquitous Michiel Huisman, who will be appearing both here and on “Game of Thrones” this spring). And though the quality of the show's no longer a surprise, the creative team still manages to take us into unlikely new places. You wouldn't think this is a show that had room for a musical theater component, but darnit if it doesn't work wonderfully. (You will also not be shocked to learn that Maslany has a fine singing voice, and that the production team has gotten better than ever at putting her into the same frame with herself.)
As she did for most of last season, Liane Bonin Starr's going to be covering the show weekly for us on her blog (here's her own review of the new season), but I'm really glad to have “Orphan Black” on my TV again, and to know that the first season wasn't just a fluke, or a trick of the light. This is a good, solid show that understands its strengths and keeps playing to them in season 2.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com