Orphan Black: 4 Steps to Fix the Clone Drama

Once TV’s most exciting sci-fi drama, Orphan Black has struggled in its third season. We offer some constructive criticism...

I can’t remember ever being quite as enthralled with a first season of a TV show than I was with the first season of Orphan Black. Ok, that’s not entirely true. Obviously, I consumed the first season of Lost back in 2004 like each episode contained the cure for death. But Orphan Black was the first post-Lost example of fast-paced TV sci-fi at its finest.

I had just moved into a new house and did not have Internet yet, so instead I watched most of the first season on my phone, absolutely murdering my data plan. It was worth it. Orphan Black season one had the relentless, what-are-we-going-to-learn-next momentum that only good science fiction can provide. 

It was only natural that the second season wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace. You can only do the “big” reveals once. Like the knowledge that the character we just saw jump onto train wrecks is a clone, and that there are many, many clones as a matter of fact. Still, it was possible that Orphan Black could have morphed into a slightly different show: one that wouldn’t necessarily deliver on the visceral thrills, but would instead delve a little deeper into the psychology of discovering there are numerous copies of yourself in existence. Season two came up short in this regard, while still being entirely watchable.

Now that Orphan Black is in its third season, it still hasn’t recaptured the madcap energy or thrill of discovery of its first season, nor has it been able to succeed on a deeper level. And I’m a little worried. The show is still perfectly fine, but fine may not be enough to maintain our attention span in such an aggressively competitive TV climate. New, quality shows are popping up every day, and even some that deal in the same science fiction territory of Orphan Black. With that in mind, I’d like to offer some friendly suggestions to get the show completely back on track for season four.

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1. Dial back on the fan service.

Orphan Black has been blessed with some amazing fans. The “Clone Club” is known to come out in force for episode recaps across the Internet and participate in discussions. Creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett are clearly very grateful for their following. Unfortunately, this has resulted in many scenes over the past couple of seasons that seem to exist because they’ll eventually make a hilarious gif-set on Tumblr and not because they’re essential to the feel of the show.

I first began to worry during the “clone dance party” at the end of season two. I’m sure it could have been done in a way that came across as cathartic after a stressful season but instead it was just a waste of the likely expensive technology used to get 4 Tatiana Maslany’s in the same shot. Then this season, there was another inexplicable “dance” scene in which Allison and Donnie twerked in their underwear while making it rain with their newfound drug money. The show can and should be playful. This, however, was cloying. Manson and Fawcett deserve a lot of credit for appreciating their fans and trying to enhance the experience for them but it’s best to leave fan fiction to the fans.

2. Simplify.

Orphan Black often gets bogged down in the own twisty-ness. Everything was disorienting in season one: Sarah and her sisters didn’t know who had manufactured them. And once they found out they didn’t know if they could trust them? By the time season one’s 10 episodes had wrapped up, nearly every character had been a double agent, a triple agent or just a wacko. The disorientation was fun for one season, but it’s beginning to grow a little old. 

There’s something to be said for espionage, trickery and confusion. Orphan Black, however, in its relatively advanced age, is relying on it as a crutch. Mrs. S has gone from an enemy to a trusted ally yet again in the span of one season. And the clones have gone back to an uneasy alliance with Leda because it’s the lesser of two evils with Castor… until all of that will be upending again certainly. Delphine has somehow gone from a scientist and trusted ally to being an antagonistic head of Leda, back to being an ally. At this point the whiplash of changing allegiances is adding nothing to the show beyond simple time-killing. This is one of the main issues that killed another promising sci-fi show: Heroes. The writers never seemed to know what to make of “The Company” and by the time they had settled on a general purpose for it, audiences had long since stopped watching. 

 3. Pick a villain. One villain.

This is in many ways an extension of our second point. All of this allegiance-changing and topsy-turvy-ness has led to a villain vacuum at the top of the Orphan Black universe. At any given moment it’s difficult to tell who is opposing the clones. At various points this season, the scientists and military clones at Castor have fit the bill but they are constantly undercutting each other. The Castor Clones have to share attention and space with one another, and then they have to divide that screen time even more among the scientists at Castor. Then there are the shadowy elements behind the scenes at both Castor and Leda. All the while people are constantly switching sides. Paul? Bad guy then good guy. Rachel? Bad guy, now a reluctant helper. Tatiana Maslany is a talented enough actress to portray 3-6 protagonists simultaneously and she deserves one good antagonist, even if its for one season, whose villainy will never be in doubt and who she can act opposite of. With that in mind…

4. Get Tatiana some help.

Tatiana Maslany is LeBron James and the rest of the cast are LeBron James ineffectual Cavaliers teammates. No disrespect to the other actors on the show*, they perform admirable work as perfunctory characters on a sci-fi show but Maslany is just on another level, and its painfully obvious every scene.

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*Jordan Gavaris’ accent work is unreal. I’m conflicted as to who has the better accent on TV right now: Gavaris or Orange is the New Black’s Yael Stone

Poor Ari Millen. Poor, poor Ari Millen. His portrayal of clones is very good and on any other show would be noteworthy, but the military training of his characters has robbed a lot of them of crucial personality and by comparison to Maslany’s colorful clones, the Millen clones may as well not even exist. Orphan Black needs to invest in at least one more really strong actor for at least one more really strong character, just so Maslany has a foil worthy of bouncing off of. Preferably this would be a villain as mentioned before but really anywhere else on the show would be a welcome introduction. 

I don’t mean to be overly critical of Orphan Black. Making collaborative art is hard and for the most part Orphan Black succeeds. It just needs to get better to fulfill the promise of its beginning. And no more clone dance parties. Please.