Has Orphan Black become too confusing for its own good?

Sarah Manning, played by Tatiana Maslany, is probably up to no good on Orphan Black. Photo / Ken Woroner, BBC America
Sarah Manning, played by Tatiana Maslany, is probably up to no good on Orphan Black. Photo / Ken Woroner, BBC America

Have no idea what's going on with the plot on SoHo's Orphan Black, even though you've watched every episode? You're not alone.

"I have no clue what's happening," lead actress Tatiana Maslany laughed to the Toronto Star this week. "It's kind of embarrassing. I obviously understand emotionally, in a certain way, what's going on and what needs to happen and what the drive is. ... In terms of, who's who in the zoo? I get completely lost. Completely lost."

With its tangled web of storylines that encompass everything from a scary global science institute to cloning, Orphan Black is easily one of the most confusing shows on television. It's a common complaint about the acclaimed drama, which gained strong buzz and cult-hit status early on as Maslany plays almost a dozen different clones at the heart of an experiment gone awry.

The unusual, creepy premise makes for fascinating yet increasingly frustrating viewing, especially as the show kicks off its fourth season and delves into how the clone mystery started in the first place.

As shows like Lost proved, solid sci-fi dramas can hook people with complex backstory and leave fans yearning to learn more as they dissect the various storylines. Theoretically, a challenging show is supposed to be worth the headache, because it rewards faithful viewers with exciting twists and turns - and producers appear psyched to flesh out the Orphan Black universe for deeper stories.

But as some viewers struggle to keep up, has the series become too convoluted for its own good?

Along with viewers, several TV writers seem to think so. "Full disclosure: I couldn't spoil the show if I tried," admitted the Toronto Star reporter who interviewed Maslany. "For whatever reason, consistent comprehension of 'Orphan Black' looms as an aspirational goal for me."

Last year when the show introduced male clones, the San Francisco Chronicle declared the series "a confusing mess" and lamented it as "a lesson in how a good show goes wrong." This week, an A.V. Club review of the Season 4 premiere assured fans that the show will find its way out of its "season-three tumble down the rabbit hole of convoluted conspiracies and proliferating plotlines."

At times, the show is brilliant, though it has also spiraled to the point where you need an intricate map to keep track of all the clones (Sarah! Alison! Cosima! Helena! Krystal! Mark?); who is evil (Rachel); who is evil but pretending to be good (Delphine?); scientific experiments (Project Leda! Project Castor!); and the many, many conspiracies. Not only does that bog down viewers, sometimes the writers will make a reference just to flesh out the Orphan Black universe, even though they never plan to explain further.

"It's nice to just be able to nod to a mythology that's a bit frightening and to not go there in any great detail," creator Graeme Manson said last year when we asked about a Season 3 throwaway reference to an event in Helsinki that resulted in murdered clones. "To know that there is something deeper, and there's a deep level of conspiracy and mystery in our show."

True, though that type of ultimately extraneous detail can serve to make viewers even more puzzled; and unfortunately, more likely to bail if the plot becomes too much. At this point, however, the plot is only a side note to some fans, who feel the best way to enjoy the show is simply to focus on Maslany's impressive acting chops playing tons of clones.

"Her performance(s) seriously make all the confusion worth it for me," one blogger wrote. "The whole show could be in Pig Latin and I'd still be like, "Wow, give that woman an Emmy.'"

The new season of Orphan Black starts on Sky's SoHo channel on Thrusday April 21, 9.30pm.

- Washington Post

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