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There’s only one ‘Orphan Black’

Tatiana Maslany as both Rachel and Sarah, two of the many clones she plays on “Orphan Black.”


Tatiana Maslany as both Rachel and Sarah, two of the many clones she plays on “Orphan Black.”

Last week, a bit of Hollywood news surfaced like an old tire in a dank pond. Fox 2000 Pictures, it seems, is hard at work on yet another unappealing, unfortunate, and completely unnecessary sequel, this time to Robin Williams’s 1993 movie “Mrs. Doubtfire.” I could feel the bile rise to my throat as I read the item and pictured Williams’s character going Doubtfire on — inevitably, right? — his irksomely adorable grandchildren.

And that made me think of “Orphan Black,” the BBC America Saturday night series that has just returned for its second season. American culture, driven by the bottom line, has become a factory of TV and movie reboots, retreads, and returns. We’ve been smoking too much rehashish. And yet here is a wildly entertaining TV show that is marked by originality. On the eve of the return of “24,” which tries to rise from the deader than dead on May 5, here is this hope.

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Broadly speaking, “Orphan Black” is a sci-fi action story about a group of clones, all of whom are played by the astonishing Tatiana Maslany. Yes, we’ve seen clone sci-fi before, but not with this amount of character depth and forward thrust. The creators of “Orphan Black,” John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, take the idea in unexpected and new directions, and always with style. Just when you think you’ve seen a bit of “Orphan Black” before, on a WB superhero show or on “Heroes” or in the 1981 movie “Diva,” you realize it has been recombined into something entirely fresh.

There are an enormous number of subplots, all clearly connected by an uber-plot, in case you’re thinking of starting with season two. Each of Maslany’s clones has her own story line, as well as a vivid and distinctive personality. Maslany was nominated for a Golden Globe last year, and she deserves an Emmy — not for playing so many characters, but for delineating each one so carefully. And then all the clones cross over when the company that created and patented them, the Dyad Institute, tries to take ownership of them. Also tying the strands together: a cult of religious nuts who see clones as an abomination and are trying to take them all out of existence.

So it’s a complicated tapestry, in some ways, but then if you take a step back, it’s all fairly simple. Science and religion are fighting for dominance, and, more importantly, women are fighting for control of their own lives and bodies. Not only are the clones dealing with aggression from Dyad and from the religious extremists, but they have unknown “monitors’ who are watching them for the corporation. “Orphan Black” is unified by nothing so much as the struggle by these women for freedom. Meanwhile, Maslany is acting up a storm, making the show easy to enjoy even if you don’t especially care about the details.

What isn’t said enough about “Orphan Black” and Maslany is that, in addition to drama, they also deliver an appealing amount of camp. Whenever a show dabbles in wigs — “Alias,” “The Americans,” “Melrose Place” — it seems to veer into a kind of knowing self-satire. Each time Maslany appears in a different guise, I get a chuckle out of it, especially when she’s the nefarious Rachel, with her severe expressions and Anna Wintour-like haircut.

The clone Alison, too, is a comic creation, a mentally unstable soccer mom and addict who uses exclamations such as “fiddlesticks!” This season, Alison is involved in a community theater production that comes off like “Waiting for Guffman,” Christopher Guest’s affectionate spoof of amateurs putting on a show. Alison is amusing, but Maslany is also able to make her work dramatically, as she faces the fact that her husband is, in fact, her monitor.

The camp seems most pronounced when “Orphan Black” has two or more of Maslany’s clones in the same room together. Sometimes the seams show — “Orphan Black” isn’t a particularly big-budget affair — and the scenes humorously recall the split-screens from the likes of “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Jeannie.” That roughness never quite spoils the show’s charm; indeed, it increases it, as does the casting of Matt Frewer — he was Max Headroom — as the scientist that oversees the Dyad Institute’s clone experiment. The funny and allusive name of Frewer’s character — Dr. Aldous Leekie — is a kick.

Weird and jagged, inventive and energetic, “Orphan Black” is a small blessing. While Hollywood is busy cloning, this show about clones is a singular pleasure.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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