We know Maslany will inhabit each clone identity so thoroughly that we’ll forget one woman is playing half the cast. We know each clone will have a male friend or lover -- think Alison’s husband Donnie, Sarah’s hunky boyfriend Cal, Cosima’s science pal Scott -- who will be simultaneously impressed and a little afraid of each woman’s boldness and bravery. One of the smallest but most welcome subtexts of this energetic BBC America show centers on the idea that men find the sisters, who stick by each other and fight hard for their autonomy, attractive as either friends or lovers. “Empowerment is sexy” isn’t the show’s tagline, but it could be.
We also know that Felix, the continually exasperated brother of the tough grifter Sarah, will always leave his loft in a state of glorious, inviting disarray. And the one inescapable fact that we learn and re-learn every season: Felix really needs a better lock for his front door.
All those sure things give “Orphan Black” a very sturdy base to build on. That said, the tangle of factions, agendas and players the show built up in its second season looks like a dozen strands of DNA put through a blender and then bedazzled. There’s Topside, the Dyad Institute, the military, the police, the LEDA Project, a few lingering Proletheans, and then, the various female clones and their friends, enemies, lovers and relations. If you put a gun to my head and made me describe how all those factions relate to each other in 100 words or less, I would fail that test. I’m not even sure a super-genius like Cosima could remember it all.
And this season, the show has added male clones played by Ari Millen to the mix. The good news is, Sarah, Cosima and the other clones retain most of the real estate in this gorgeously grimy biothriller, and watching the established characters relate to each other is still a lot of fun. It’s an unrelenting joy to watch Maslany find new ways to differentiate the clones; this season, I noticed just how much she changes the timbre and intonation of each character’s voice, and to see her as one clone playing another is still a joy to behold (though I hold that last season’s clone dance party took the concept of fan service too far).
The beautiful disaster named Helena remains my favorite part of the show, and she even gets a new companion this season, one so suitably batsh-t that it makes me smile just thinking about it. Another reliable aspect of “Orphan Black”: No woman on screen has ever enjoyed food as gloriously and unashamedly as Helena, who remains impervious to every attempt to mine her for information or anything else.
Ideally, the role of the plot on “Orphan Black” is to serve as the background machinery that unites various combinations of these characters for reasons I can at least halfway understand. From that perspective, the start of the third season is encouraging, in that I can often more or less follow what’s happening, even if I’m not 100 percent sure about who wants what from whom and why.
In any event, it’s in the asides and digressions that “Orphan Black” tends to excel. Kristian Bruun has emerged as the show’s secret weapon: He serves up razor-sharp comic timing in the Alison-Donnie scenes, and he is responsible for my favorite moment in last year’s overstuffed season. The suburban scenes could tip over into overwrought satire quite easily, but they remain on the right side of the reality-parody divide because Bruun and Maslany make the couple’s perky, twisted bond feel palpable and real.
Scott (Josh Vokey) has also emerged as a stealth delight: Now that Delphine (Evelyne Brochu) is off doing something or other for Dyad, Scott’s dorky wonderment has become an entertaining addition to the world of Cosima and her crunchy-granola celebration of science. As the mysterious Mrs. S., Maria Doyle Kennedy has always brought a grounded, practical warmth to the sometimes outlandish “Orphan Black” proceedings. The drama is something of an advertisement for alternative families, and Mrs. S. serves as the conflicted but loyal anchor for several of them.
Felix (Jordan Gavaris), of course, remains the essential emotional glue of the show, but as was the case with Paul (Dylan Bruce), last season, the show doesn't consistently know what to do with him. In the first two episodes of the new season, however, both have some excellent moments. If “Orphan Black” can shed a little of the narrative tangle that built up last season and keep supplying heartening, humanistic glimpses of the connective tissue in its very strange but fiercely loving core family, I will gladly retain my membership in the clone club.
Season 3 of “Orphan Black” debuts at 9 p.m. ET Saturday on BBC America. Note: IFC begins a marathon of the first two seasons of "Orphan Black" at midnight E.T. Friday.