It's not often that a recent Supreme Court ruling comes up during a discussion of a cult TV show, let alone at a Comic-Con panel that, for the most part, feels like a raucous rock concert.
But such is the short, weird, extraordinary life of BBC America's "Orphan Black," one of the most well-received dramas in recent memory. In a few short months, it's gone from obscure newcomer to buzzworthy pop-culture favorite, with critics, high-profile fans and a loyal audience keeping the show in the public eye long after its June 1 season finale.
(This post assumes you've seen the first season of "Orphan Black." If you haven't, get on that and come on back when you're done.)
I've been writing about TV a long time but can't recall the last time a show peaked so much -- in terms of chatter, coverage and critical acclaim -- so long after its debut season was off the air. Part of the ongoing attention toward the show was driven by the deserved Emmy talk for star Tatiana Maslany, who won a Critics' Choice award in June and made playing multiple roles look so easy that much of the Internet cried out in anguish the day Emmy nominations were announced and her name wasn't among them.
The thing is, if Maslany's brilliant dexterity had been all we got from "Orphan Black," that would have been more than enough. But viewers -- many of whom have been catching up with "Orphan Black" On Demand or on DVD -- are genuinely excited about the show for reasons that go beyond Maslany's tour de force. The show, part of a wave of smart genre programming that has been secretly taking over TV, supplied a compelling set of complicated characters and married them to a propulsive thriller with scientific flourishes.
The appeal of the show's crackling pace and delicious twists could not be denied, but the relationships at the core of the show ultimately helped "Orphan Black" make the leap from good to great. The wary, worried dance among the "sistras," as wild-child clone Helena refers to her duplicates, has been fascinating in its own right, but there was also fine work from Jordan Gavaris, whose Felix was a droll yet sensitive delight, as well as Dylan Bruce, Matt Frewer and Maria Doyle Kennedy.
As many critics have noted, the show played around with a whole host of ideas that TV generally keeps at arm's length. Who owns women's bodies, and how do they escape or reframe the expectations society places on them? What are the limits of science, if any? How do you define "family" when your biological connections come with a host of thorny ethical questions?
These murky issues weren't exactly cleared up by the Supreme Court, which ruled in June that human DNA can't be patented. I interviewed "Orphan Black" creators and executive producers Graeme Manson and John Fawcett at Comic-Con, and in their view, that issue is far from resolved.
The ruling is "full of holes," Manson said. The court said that patenting synthetic DNA was fine, so in Manson's view, that means biotech firms will just "tweak" DNA in order to own it. Even if the court's decision didn't entirely settle the issue, it has given "Orphan Black" ample material for a second season, which arrives in April. (Perhaps the jurists are just fans of the show?)
The whole DNA/cloning issue sounds like a weighty thing to weave into a Saturday night suspense program, but the nimble "Orphan Black" has so far worn its scientific research lightly. Manson and Fawcett did plenty of reading about DNA, genetics and cloning before telling their story, but the finished product isn't chock-full of gleaming labs and pristine test tubes. Visually speaking, it's grittier and messier than that (well, aside from Alison's spotless crafting room).
The show does have a lot of moving parts and characters, however, which is why the "Orphan Black" film the producers originally pitched evolved into a television series.
"It was a difficult thing to achieve in a 2.5-hour format," Fawcett said. "In a television format it's better, because the mystery can be that much deeper and yet you don't have to feel rushed. You don't have to go, 'Hey, here's the big answer!'"
As the season finale proved, Sarah Manning and her clone sisters still have lots of potentially interesting places yet to go. Who was really behind the experiment that created them, and what do those people want with Sarah's daughter, Kira? How can the women achieve true autonomy when they don't even know how many of them there are and what may be afflicting at least some of them? The clone Cosima fell ill at the end of Season 1, and the producers have been cagey about what fate awaits her (but they must know that if she dies, Cosima's legion of online fans may well lose their minds).
Cosima's an excellent example of how the show treats science: In the world of "Orphan Black," it's not purely a threat or a monolithic authority or a precise tool. Like Cosima herself, it's funky, fascinating, exciting, a little dangerous and kind of cool.
As Manson said, "Our concept of clones is not the typical sci-fi version of clones, where you walk into the room and there's all the drawers or stasis tubes full of liquid" and replicated bodies.
The scientific aspect of things "could be a little bit silly if you don't sort of manage it right," Fawcett added. "I think that's why sticking it in a real place and trying to put it in a backdrop of something that people can really identify" was key to the audience buying into the show's core ideas about genetic manipulation and, well, a guy with a tail.
That's why there few lab scenes on the show; "Orphan Black" was more likely to showcase the grandiose rantings of Matt Frewer's messianic scientist or show the ravers at an underground hangout for body-modification aficionados. Very little about "Orphan Black" feels slick or clinical; its grungy, downtown aesthetic -- best embodied by Felix's gloriously ratty loft -- is one of its most underrated selling points.
But as the producers pointed out, "Orphan Black" operates in several different spheres: Alison's brightly lit, tightly wound suburban milieu; Beth's cool, minimalist-expensive apartment (where Sarah lived when she was pretending to be Beth); Felix's loft (which Alison couldn't resist cleaning); and the feral spaces in which Helena has generally traveled.
"From the beginning, John [Fawcett, who is a director as well as executive producer] was like, 'I want each world to have a look and a feel.' So Alison's world is so specific and the colors are different, and the themes and what she's dealing with is like a different show within the show," Manson pointed out. "Sarah is kind of like the 'Bourne Identity' thriller to Cosima's medical-science geek thriller."
Though their worlds started out quite differently, as one Twitter follower pointed out to me, the show did not depict a group of women in an ever-escalating war. It wasn't "Who Shall Be Queen Clone?" but was more like, "How the hell do we all get out of this alive and healthy?" The clones had their differences, but much of "Orphan Black" concerned their attempts to rescue one another from the mysterious manipulation of the people who'd brought them into the world and secretly observed their lives.
"Family themes, nature versus nurture ... [these] were always a strong thread, and we were always interested in how the clones were going to eventually meet up and how those relationships were going to look and feel," Manson said. "They needed to be as real as possible and as fun as possible. The more distinct and complex they are, the more you buy into it. Aside from the uncanny abilities of Tatiana Maslany, the more we can think through those relationships and make them really complex and interesting and give her great stuff to act with, the more you buy this crazy premise."
It was hard not to fall for the characters. I found myself thinking about them and wondering what the odd-couple friends Alison and Felix were up to after the season had ended, and it sounds as though the producers miss them, too.
"In Season 1, we were like, 'Here's the plot! Here's the mystery!' And then [we were] trying to do as much character stuff as we could along the way," Fawcett said. "You wind up falling in love with the characters, [and in Season 2], I just want less plot. Can we just have more character stuff? Like, funny stuff with Alison and Felix? It is kind of my instinct to give the audience a little bit more breathing room sometimes, to just enjoy, like, the fact that the clones are really fun to hang out with."
"And yet we don't want to lose the pace," Manson added.
What else can we expect in Season 2? At least "a couple" more clones -- but they'll be played by Maslany, not by other actors. Maybe down the road a bit, the producers said, there might be room for another group of clones, but the show still has plenty of exploring to do among Sarah and her sisters. As Manson said, "We've got some space to explore" before other clones join the on-screen family.
Kira, who is of great interest to the scientists behind the clone experiment, will figure prominently in Season 2, as well, as will Mrs. S. (Kennedy), the foster mother of Felix and Sarah. When I asked if that character knows more than she's let on, the producers nodded their heads. "It's safe to say Mrs. S. still holds many surprises for us," Manson said.
Will we ever meet Sarah's parents? Well, that question is far more loaded than it appears at first. "It's not necessarily 'the parents,' it's 'Where did the genetic material come from?'" Manson said. "Because you don't need an original." That observation sounds like it's worth half a season of creepy developments all of its own.
One more thing we know for sure: Season 2 will hit the ground running, picking up "quite soon" after the events of Season 1.
"With Kira being taken, if you just think of that, dramatically," Fawcett observed, "there's too much at stake to leave it even for a day."
Can't get enough of "Orphan Black"? The entire interview with Fawcett and Manson is available as a Talking TV podcast here, on iTunes and below. Also in that podcast: A dual interview with Gavaris and Bruce. Also, the entire Comic-Con panel is here and the stars' panel at Nerd HQ during Comic-Con is here.