Krysten Ritter in 10-Episode Spinoff 5

The thrill of discovery that accompanied my first viewing of the Orphan Black pilot is one of the highlights of the 20-something years I’ve been doing this job. It’s rare that a show emerges from so far off-the-radar — relatively mysterious plot, relatively unknown creative auspices, relatively unknown star, relatively unproven network brand — and so instantly establishes itself as worthy of obsession. In less than an hour, you knew Graeme Manson and John Fawcett had created a mystery that demanded to be pursued, that BBC America had cemented itself as a place capable of delivering such stories and that Tatiana Maslany was a force of nature.

It’s an unfair standard, but nonetheless the one facing BBC America and AMC‘s new Orphan Black: Echoes, a 10-episode drama created by Anna Fishko and set in the Orphan Black universe, but not precisely a spinoff or sequel.

Orphan Black: Echoes

The Bottom Line

Finds some virtues after a sluggish start.

Airdate: Sunday, June 23 at 10 p.m. ET (AMC, AMC+, BBC America)
Cast: Krysten Ritter, Keeley Hawes, Amanda Fix, Avan Jogia, James Hiroyuki Liao, Rya Kihlstedt
Creator: Anna Fishko

Orphan Black arrived with a remarkable hook that was all its own. Orphan Black: Echoes arrives with Orphan Black as its hook, which I guess gives it license to be more of a slow burn. Or maybe it’s a justification for introducing the dullest part of its story first, before leaning into the ways it’s connected to the original series — ways that turn out to be the very worst aspect of Echoes.

The first episode should have been its opening 10 minutes and the first three or four episodes probably should have been its pilot. So when I tell you that there were ultimately parts of Orphan Black: Echoes that I liked very much — several of the performances and some of the premise’s big ideas in particular — it’s with the warning that the journey to get to those attributes is paved with frustration, clunky callbacks and lurid pink goo.

Here, first, is the mostly non-spoiler-y version of the plot:

Lucy (Krysten Ritter) wakes up from a “procedure” with no memories. A scientist (Keeley Hawes) peppers her with questions. A frustrated Lucy bolts, escaping through some science-y facility featuring creepy machines, oversized industrial fans and the aforementioned lurid pink goo. The scientist briefly confronts Lucy and explains, “You weren’t created. You were printed. From a high-resolution scan, using a very complex process. It’s a new technology.”

Fair enough.

Two years later — it’s 2052 — Lucy is in hiding somewhere. She has a very boring boyfriend (Evan Jogia’s Jack), who has a slightly less boring deaf daughter (Zariella Langford-Haughton). Then a man comes to kill Lucy. Running and violence ensue.

In very little time — but still more time than it should take — Lucy begins unraveling the mystery of herself with an enigmatic assortment of characters including Jules (Amanda Fix), a teen with secrets of her own; the previously established nameless scientist; and a seemingly benign billionaire (James Hiroyuki Liao as Paul Darros), who probably isn’t actually benign, because billionaires rarely are. Especially not billionaires with an interest in cloning. Err… sorry, an interest in “human printing.”

If your curiosity is properly piqued, skip this paragraph, because it has spoilers that I think relate to the basic premise, rather than actual twists within the series: See, the unnamed doctor is actually Kira, the daughter/niece/whatever from Orphan Black, a character who wasn’t actually a character so much as a child in jeopardy and therefore an outlet for sympathy.

Kira had no meaningful personality, so doing a spinoff built around an older Kira is really just an excuse for countless repetitions of, “Given what you went through before, how could you have allowed this to happen again?” It’s a bit like the way various Jaws sequels kept bringing back members of the Brody family, not because they were compelling characters, but because they were people who should have known better than to take vacations any place with proximity to open water.

In general, though, having Kira as a part of the story adds very little and the two additional cameos from Orphan Black veterans — don’t expect Maslany — are actively distracting, marred by awful old-age makeup and exposition that’s both ungainly and purposeless. It might have been a better idea to have skipped the callbacks and cameos and just let the show stand as a thematic companion to Orphan Black, rather than as a poorly conjoined twin.

Extreme spoilers done.

The obligatory two-pronged questions people are surely asking would be, “Do I need to have watched Orphan Black to watch Orphan Black: Echoes?” and “Do I need to have watched Orphan Black to the end in order to understand what’s happening here?” The answers are “No” and “No.” You can or should pretend that Echoes is its own show, albeit one that takes three or four episodes to get going and, even then, keeps getting derailed by latex-coated interlopers

Orphan Black was essentially a one-actor brand and Orphan Black: Echoes lacks anything approaching the Maslany tour de force.

Ritter, who has been so spectacular in shows like Breaking Bad and Jessica Jones, is being presented as the ostensible lead here. Stuck with an initially bland, one-note character, she’s a weak point-of-entry, made even less interesting by the relationship with Jogia’s Jack, so boring that I kept forgetting it was part of the show at all.

Both Ritter and the show around her get significantly better with the introduction of Fix’s Jules, who is funny and deservedly sullen and generally complex in ways the show desperately needed in her absence.

Later episodes, when Ritter, Fix and Rya Kihlstedt get to share the screen, are when Orphan Black: Echoes feels freshest — yes, three stars struggling to equal one Maslany — with twisty character interactions and the injection of some amusing and distinctive ideas that too frequently get upstaged by the need to callback to an earlier series that’s functionally irrelevant to the new one.

Liao, who you’ll recognize from more shows than I can count, makes for a decently low-key adversary, not an overt villain but a constant source of ambiguous motivation. For doses of comic relief, I liked Reed Diamond as a Celine Dion-loving security consultant, as well as Liam Diaz as Jules’ foster brother Wes, who just kinda disappears from the show at a certain point. Hawes is better in the early going when she’s being funny, though she’s excellent in the emotionally weighty fifth episode, a flashback-heavy standout, if you make it that far.

To say that Orphan Black: Echoes isn’t always clear in its messaging about science and futurism isn’t a huge criticism, since Orphan Black wasn’t always consistent on that front either. Fishko and company have a reasonably positive view of the future, setting the series in a reasonably cheery version of Boston that looks absolutely nothing like Boston since it only looks like Toronto with some CG skyscrapers added.

There are small evolutions of technology and cultural attitudes, but in a TV landscape glutted by dystopias, having any optimism about life 30-ish years in the future borders on revolutionary. Sometimes I thought the way the show treated recreational drug use or sexual attitudes felt cool and progressive, though just as often the attempts at world-building felt insufficiently imaginative.

Shifting from “cloning” to “human printing” is a calculated choice, but one that doesn’t always pay dividends. It’s easier to see how this version of scientific advancement could begin from a point of altruism — affordable and easily available printed organs for those in need of transplants — and to see how even the perversion of the technology could come from a place of understandable human emotion. There are faith versus science debates that the series tries to engage in — the scientist’s son has become enamored with Quakerism — only to consistently get distracted by perfunctory thriller trappings.

If you make it through the clumsy series introductions and weather the pointless linkages to Orphan Black, Echoes has its pleasures — starting with Fix, Liao, Hawes and Kihlstedt. What it lacks is that thrill of discovery. Compared to Orphan Black, it’s but a distant echo.

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