When Orphan Black premiered on BBC America last year, it was one of the most pleasant television surprises of the year. Its creators, Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, were hardly veteran hitmakers, and the lead actor, Tatiana Maslany, was another virtual unknown stepping into a series where she would play five of the show’s primary characters. But a clever premise, an extremely self-assured performance from Maslany, and some intricately plotted scripts from Manson and Fawcett turned the sci-fi thriller into an unexpected critical hit. Clone stories haven’t been a major sci-fi genre in some time, but with all of that going for it (plus Jordan Gavaris’s scene-stealing turn as perennial sidekick Felix), Orphan Black broke through.
But a surprise-hit first season inevitably leads to a new challenge, too: how do you approach season two, when the expectations are suddenly much higher?
Manson and Fawcett were in Austin a few weeks before the end of the second season of Orphan Black—which concluded Saturday night on BBC America—as part of the ATX Television Festival, and they found themselves in Maggie Mae’s bar on a Saturday afternoon with a few plates of BBQ and an opportunity to discuss how you make a surprise hit one of the most highly anticipated shows on TV.
The fact that Orphan Black turned out to be a great new voice on television was a surprise to fans and critics—but it wasn’t a shock to Manson and Fawcett, who believed in the show from the beginning.
"Back in the beginning, it was a story in three parts. It’s expanded a bit now, but ultimately, the destination is still the same, and a lot of the big tentpole elements to the show will always remain the same," Fawcett says. "But in season one, nobody knew who we were—we were just kind of making a show. It was just us making as cool a show as we possibly could. And then as people started to see it, and with that sort of overwhelming fan and critical response, it was daunting going into the second season. We wanted to make it more exciting than the first season, and we wanted to make it bigger and badder. It’s this really thrilling, yet terrifying kind of experience. If you fuck it up..."
In order to avoid fucking it up, Manson says that he and Fawcett kept their eye on the story they had planned to tell from the beginning. The show was intricately plotted in ways that any highly serialized, conspiracy-based series in the post-Lost era has to be. "We spent a lot of time talking in the first weeks of the first season with the writers," he says. "Not about ‘What are we going to do in the pilot?’ but about ‘What’s the endpoint?’ We know what the mystery is. We know what the conspiracy is—then it’s a massive reverse-engineering project."
When in doubt about how to improve on something that took people by surprise, in other words, make sure you’re staying true to the things that surprised them in the first place.
Just because you’re sticking to the plan, of course, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider what advantages come with being suddenly popular. The resources allocated to a hit show with critical prestige are greater than those of a series that hasn’t found its audience, and Manson says that the team was interested in taking advantage of that.
"There was definitely a desire off the top of the second season—expand the world, see different worlds, don’t get trapped in our gritty urban environment."
To that end, they took off from the brick lofts of urban Toronto early on into season two, in order to explore the woods and farms outside of the city. "We already had three or four distinct worlds going," Fawcett says. "So let’s get out of that. Let’s open up the show. Let’s use some of the good weather that we have. We always try to one-up each other to do things we haven’t seen before, or that are super technically challenging."
One of the main drivers of the show's success is Maslany's ability to bring such distinct personalities to each member of the "Clone Club" that she portrays. Sarah, as the main protagonist, feels very much like a different human being from her counterparts Alison and Cosima, and there are moments watching the show when a person could easily believe they’re all played by different actors. With that in mind, there’s an opportunity to take chances and go further into each character’s life that might not work in a show built on a more typical premise.
For example: season two featured an extended, episodes-long subplot in which the Alison character gets deeply involved in a community theater production of a made-up musical. That’s a risk that could alienate an audience, but represents a story that's also true to the character.
"We just thought it was funny. The Alison storylines really kind of write themselves. We still keep her real, but we can do zany things with her, because that’s kind of the nature of the character," Fawcett explains. "Putting her in a musical was just something that we all really laughed about."
"Not necessarily in a good way," Manson adds. "I was laughing like, ‘that’s stupid’ and ‘I don’t think should do that.’ And then I kept laughing, and I was like, ‘Okay, if I’m still laughing, it’s got to fit somehow.’"
It’s a funny story, but it does reflect the approach to building an ongoing series with its own internal mythology. Alison’s passion for musical theater may not have been on the season-one road map, but Fawcett says that it was an opportunity that came out of some of the pre-planning they’d done.
"We set these wheels in motion in season one by talking about her community theater, and how Felix was her acting coach—all these things," he says. "So we decided, ‘let’s just embrace that and expand on it.’ It’s been fun."
One of the other unique aspects of Orphan Black is that, as a show about a clone conspiracy, where the bulk of the characters on the show are all played by Maslany, audiences are always anticipating the latest new character—and that new character is likely to be yet another person learning that they’re part of this mystery. That both raises the expectations for the appearance of new characters and—because a dead character doesn’t necessarily mean an out-of-work actor—makes it easier to imagine a clone leaving the show.
Figuring out how to play with all of the new characters they have at their disposal, and how to introduce them in a way that’s satisfying, is a big part of the process for Manson and Fawcett.
"It’s part of the trick," Fawcett says. "I think it’s good for the show and for keeping people on the edge of their seats, to some degree. One, to not necessarily trust new characters. And two, anyone can die at any given moment. So having characters drop away, and new characters arrive, and characters that show up that you’re not sure whether to trust—I think that’s all part of this thrill ride that we’re trying to create. Ultimately, with as many things as we want to say with our themes, the most important thing is to tell a really exciting story that the audience is constantly trying to second guess and figure out. It’s a complicated story to tell, but that’s what we set out every day to do: What’s the most exciting, shocking way to tell the story, not the most shocking, mysterious, or challenging way to develop the show."