"You are a bloody wrecking ball. You are an exploding cigar," laments a confidante of the clones under siege in BBC America's thrillingly entertaining Orphan Black. She's also a bloody marvel, as Tatiana Maslany plays these diverse doppelgangers with astonishing range and surprising nuance. Scrappy street waif? Check. High-strung soccer mom? Check. Lesbian scientist-in-training? Check. Deranged Russian assassin? Why not. Beyond a provocative premise and blistering pace, Orphan Black is a terrific showcase for one of TV's great performances. Even when it threatens to look like a stunt, with one clone at another's throat in a smackdown or layering the subterfuge when one clone pretends to be another, this bonded-by-genetics sister act never feels forced or phony.
Season 1 of this cult favorite was all about getting to know these various look-alikes while unveiling the medical conspiracy behind their creation. Season 2 deepens the conflicts in a suspensefully sustained chase thriller built around "a war for the future of creation," as the sinister Prolethean religious cult frames the topical science-vs-faith debate. Much of the early intrigue focuses on Sarah, the fugitive desperately seeking those who abducted her little daughter Kyra (a miracle clone child, naturally) in last year's cliffhanger. Sarah blames the icy corporate clone Rachel Duncan, but the truth is, typically, more complicated. The plentiful action scenes have the kinetic rush of a Run Lola Run-style indie adventure, but there's also plenty of funky humor — much of it courtesy of Sarah's outrageous sidekick Felix (Jordan Gavaris) — and social satire, especially when mad suburban housewife/clone Allison is center stage, channeling Weeds as she makes a gun deal in an Econo Mart parking lot and, in her leisure time, participates in one of the weirdest community-theater musicals ever staged.
This could and should be the season when Orphan Black graduates from cult curiosity and is adopted by the pop culture at large as the watercooler sensation it deserves to be. Stranger things have happened, but rarely so well deserved.
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THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC: With a lusty abandon that makes most of the supernatural shenanigans on the CW look like child's play, WGN America enters the cluttered marketplace of original cable programming with Salem (Sunday, 10/9c), an occult period piece that might as well be called "Freaky Hollow." We're in the late 1600s, with the punitive torture-loving Puritans in charge of enforcing the settlement's rigid and hypocritical code of morality. Unlike Arthur Miller's classic The Crucible, which saw the ensuing witch hunt as a cautionary parable of McCarthy-ist demagoguery, Salem sets the witches loose in a lurid and often ludicrous free-for-all of graphic sexuality and violent retribution. Welcome to Early American Horror Story, which could give you whiplash from all the clashing acting styles, from Seth Gabel's foaming-at-the-mouth over-emoting as zealot Cotton Mather to Shane West's monotonously mumbling and too-modern hero John Alden. Rising above it all is Janet Montgomery as the alluring Mary Sibley, seductress and sorceress, whose passion for born-skeptic provocateur Alden complicates her master plan. If there even is one in this hot mess.
RETURN TO SENDER: On the other and far safer extreme of the entertainment spectrum, Hallmark Channel enlists Touched By An Angel's Martha Williamson to create its newest original series: the corny, cutesy and harmlessly anachronistic Signed, Sealed, Delivered (Sunday, 8/7c). Ugly Betty's Eric Mabius stars as the leader of a team of "uniquely gifted postal workers" from a Dead Letter office that, in an age otherwise defined by e-mail and texting, goes the extra mile to make sure misdirected missives get a Very Special Delivery. (Little wonder that the action of the premiere largely takes place in a retirement home.) Valerie Harper guest-stars in the first few episodes as their new supervisor, who'd clearly rather still be on Dancing With the Stars if her climactic song-and-dance from Pippin is any indication. It's a quaint idea for a show, but needs better plotting, because the first hour's dilemma — involving identifying a boy running away from home to be with his grandma — could have been solved with a simple phone call. Neither rain, nor snow, nor logic ...
MOVIE OF THE WEEK: While Hallmark Hall of Fame continues to spin its wheels with precious rom-com fantasy like ABC's In My Dreams (Sunday, 9/8c), starring Katharine McPhee — who as an actress makes a fine singer — and Mike Vogel as lovebirds who've only met (wait for it) in their dreams, Lifetime steps up with a "hall of fame"-worthy adaptation of Terry McMillan's tear-jerking melodrama A Day Late and a Dollar Short (Sunday, 8/7c), which would also be a perfect fit for OWN if that channel weren't so obsessed with Tyler Perry's banalities.
Though far from a perfect TV-movie, as it strains to pile on its too-many domestic complications with groaning predictability, A Day Late is perfectly watchable and blessed with a terrific cast, led by Whoopi Goldberg as Viola, the ailing matriarch of one big messy family. Such a nag and a noodge that she's driven her long-suffering husband (Ving Rhames) out of the house, Viola decides she'd better bring her brood back into line while she still can before drawing her last asthmatic breath. A season's worth of issues including addiction, infidelity and sexual abuse spill out as Viola introduces us to her estranged children: TV chef Paris (Anika Noni Rose), ex-con delinquent dad Lewis (Mekhi Phifer), acerbic battle-axe Charlotte (Tachina Arnold) and suburban goddess Janelle (Kimberly Elise). When Viola gathers everyone for what she believes will be her last birthday, the celebration quickly turns into an explosion of such hostile recrimination you may wonder why she isn't rushing into the light even sooner. Stay tuned for the final act, though. It's a multi-hanky wallow.
THE WEEKEND GUIDE: Timed perfectly to follow Thursday's season finale of Scandal, SundanceTV's The Writers' Room (Friday, 9/8c) opens its second season by gathering series creator Shonda Rhimes, star Kerry Washington and several writer/producers to gloat with host Jim Rash about the successful excesses of their ABC guilty pleasure. No spoilers here, including which of many candidates made the cut for the segment titled "Defend This Scene." ... Billy Crystal's sixth solo HBO special is no ordinary stand-up performance. It's a film version of his Tony-winning Broadway hit Billy Crystal: 700 Sundays (Saturday, 9/8c), an autobiographical memoir as funny as it is moving. ... While his NBC sitcom remains on the shelf, Michael J. Fox returns to a role that has earned him three guest-actor Emmy nominations so far: The Good Wife's cunning attorney Louis Canning, who joins Lockhart/Gardner because the firm hasn't enjoyed enough turmoil this season. On a more timely note, rival agency Florrick/Agos learns that the NSA has been listening in on their every conversation. All things considered, we envy those eavesdroppers. ... HBO's Game of Thrones (Sunday, 9/8c) picks up in the immediate aftermath of evil King Joffrey's poisoning, wasting no time revealing who was behind this most satisfying departure. To end, we quote Diana Rigg's majestic Lady Olenna, Queen of Thorns: "The world is overflowing with horrible things. But they're all a tray of cakes next to death." Long live this queen.