Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Orphan Black" Year Two

Spoilers for everything that's aired so far.

Sophomore outings are hard, especially when they're following up to premiere seasons as strong as the one that "Orphan Black" had. That great momentum, fueled by putting its heroine into one hot situation after another, and introducing memorable characters in quick succession, was unsustainable in the long run. Too many players, too many loose ends, and way too many conflicting plot details make Year Two of "Orphan Black" an ungainly thing. We now have four major protagonists with their own separate stories, and it often feels like we're watching four different shows. You can tell that the writers are actively reaching to keep characters like Paul, Vic, and Art in the mix, ignoring past events and past motivations when it suits them. "Orphan Black" has always been a messy, flying-by-the-seat-of-its-pants genre program, where some suspension of disbelief is always necessary. When the thrills are chills are executed well, continuity hiccups aren't a big deal. However, the show definitely stumbles in some major ways this year and makes some mistakes that are too egregious to ignore.

The Dyad Corp, headed by the Pro-Clone Rachel and Dr. Leakey, emerged as the new Big Bad at the end of the last season. This year was mostly a tug-of-war between them and the clone club over control of Sarah and Kira, with a deteriorating Cosima stuck in the middle, desperately searching for a cure to her illness. But first, there are all manner of tangents and diversions. Sarah has to go find her daughter, track down the original scientists who worked on the cloning project, and finally goes ahead with her plan to skip town. Cosima, meanwhile, remains in bed figuratively with Dyad to study the clones and literally with Delphine (Evelyn Brochu), her handler and colleague, despite the ambiguous motives of both. Allison and Helena barely intersect with them this year. Allison remains nominally connected to the Dyad storyline through her husband Donnie (Kristian Bruun), but the bulk of her screen time is spent dealing with booze, rehab, and musical theater. Then there's Helena, whose return from the dead I cheered. She gets stuck with a new crop of Proletheans, lead by the supremely creepy Henrik Johnson (Peter Outerbridge), who intends to exploit her biology in a far more more direct fashion than Dyad.

As a result, the show has not only separated out and isolated some of its major characters, but some of the basic elements of its narrative. All the horror seems to be concentrated in Helena's story. The bulk of the comedy goes to Allison, which is a problem when it comes to Felix, the show's best comic relief, because he's still largely interacting with Sarah. Cosima gets the romance and the hard science-fiction. Sarah gets the action. All of these stories more or less work on their own, though Sarah's narrative is wildly haphazard. All deliver moments of fun and excitement. However, the joy of "Orphan Black" was watching the clones interact with each other, and seeing how the various genre tropes could be mixed and matched. There were simply too many episodes this year where everyone was off in their own little corner. Many of the highlights came when the clones crossed paths - Sarah and Helena's road trip, the clones passing themselves off as each other, and of course the dance party.

The new additions to the cast were mostly strong ones, and I especially enjoyed Andrew Gillies as Professor Ethan Duncan and Zoe De Grand'Maison as Henrik's daughter Gracie. Michael Huisman's Cal, Michelle Forbes' Marion, and Ari Millen's Mark seem to be getting set up for meatier stuff next year, so I don't have a problem with their relatively brief screen time this year. However, it felt pointless to bring back some of the existing characters like Art and Paul, who had severely reduced roles. Michael Mando was downgraded to a guest star, but ironically Vic was much better used this year thanks to Allison's rehab stint. I also love what they're doing with Donnie, who has become a great foil for Allison. Tatiana Maslany, however, is still the main event. It's still difficult to get my head around the fact that she's juggling so many such vastly different, distinct performances every week. Rachel is a great addition to her repertoire, a twisted ice queen with some of the year's best scenes to play with.

But then there's Tony, who was only around for one episode, but who I have to bring up because we can't ignore him or what he represents. Tony the transgender clone was one of several ideas that surely looked good on paper, but that "Orphan Black" completely bungled with poor execution. Tony was such a failure of a character on every level, and such a weird digression from the rest of this season, you have to wonder how he made it to the screen. Tony comes across as oddity for oddity's sake, a poorly thought out new twist that was deployed too quickly, and then bundled up and sent away into potential obscurity just as quickly. I'm torn between wanting him to come back at some point, to justify the show spending a whole episode setting him up, or hoping that the creators cut their losses and let him be forgotten as soon as possible.

There were a lot of other Tonys and potential Tonys this season, storylines and characters that fell apart or stopped making sense. What's particularly infuriating is that many of these issues could have been corrected or greatly improved with a little more care and attention. The second season of "Orphan Black" remained very entertaining throughout, and there were a lot of things that did work beautifully, but it was hard to ignore the multiple times it fell flat on its face. In general I like the show's daring and its uniquely female-centric, female-positive genre narrative. However, it's got a lot of work to do to get back to the level of the first season, which I now realize I cut too much slack to begin with. "Orphan Black" is starting to look more and more like a guilty pleasure, which is a shame. I hope that the creators figure out how to reverse course for Year Three.


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