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'Orphan Black: Echoes' fails to make a satisfying clone of the original series

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. From 2013 to 2017, BBC America presented a science fiction series called "Orphan Black." It starred Tatiana Maslany as a woman who discovered she was one of several lookalike clones and who set out to meet her alter egos in hopes of learning why and how all of them were created. On Sunday, BBC America and AMC launched a sequel series set decades in the future. It's called "Orphan Black: Echoes," and it starts Krysten Ritter as someone with a similarly mysterious origin story. Our TV critic, David Bianculli has seen all 10 episodes from the first season. Here's his review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Orphan Black: Echoes" opens with Krysten Ritter's character waking to the sounds of birds chirping. They're trapped in a cage, and though she doesn't know it yet, she is, too. She's stretched out on a couch, and as her eyes open, she's greeted by a woman, played by Keeley Hawes, who immediately peppers her with questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "ORPHAN BLACK: ECHOES")

KEELEY HAWES: (As Dr. Kira Manning) You're awake? Take your time. You might feel...

KRYSTEN RITTER: (As Lucy) Was I asleep?

HAWES: (As Kira Manning) Not exactly.

RITTER: (As Lucy) Who are you?

HAWES: (As Kira Manning) Do you know where you are?

RITTER: (As Lucy) I don't think so.

HAWES: (As Kira Manning) You may feel a little disoriented. You've been through a procedure.

RITTER: (As Lucy) What procedure?

HAWES: (As Kira Manning) I'm going to read a list of words, and I want you to repeat them back to me, OK?

RITTER: (As Lucy) OK.

HAWES: (As Kira Manning) Face, velvet, church, daisy, red.

RITTER: (As Lucy) Face, velvet, church, daisy, red.

HAWES: (As Kira Manning) That's good. And - good. And can you tell me what year it is?

RITTER: (As Lucy) I don't know. Is something wrong?

BIANCULLI: Yes, something is wrong. The woman, played by Krysten Ritter, an actress who previously has made a major impact as both the star of "Jessica Jones" and Jesse's ill-fated girlfriend on "Breaking Bad," has no memory of who she is or much of anything else. She quickly learns, as do we, that she wasn't born. She was copied and generated like a living, breathing 3D printout, and she's not alone. The original "Orphan Black" threw its protagonist down a similar rabbit hole. That series was all about discovering the clones and their backgrounds, and who was behind the creation of more than a dozen women around the world with similar faces, but different personalities, accents, skills and looks. John Fawcett, who co-created that series, is on board for this sequel as well, directing a couple episodes and serving as an executive producer. But the credit for creating "Orphan Black: Echoes" goes to Anna Fishko. She's already adapted and expanded one successful cult TV hit into a separate entity. Her "Fear The Walking Dead" is one of several efforts by the AMC network to extend its "Walking Dead" franchise.

Like those other spin-offs, it doesn't quite live up to the best years of the original series. And in creating "Orphan Black: Echoes," she does many things right, but leaves out one crucial ingredient. One thing she does right from the very start is to focus on the motives of each individual character. They're doled out in tiny revelatory segments like flashes of memory, but they add up, explaining the decisions, the betrayals, even the many surprise twists. And though much of the action takes place in 2052, many scenes are set years, even decades, earlier, with younger actors sometimes playing already-established parts. A couple of familiar faces from the original "Orphan Black" show up in "Echoes," but most of the weight rests on the shoulders and story arcs of new characters. The casting is excellent here, which is another plus. Krysten Ritter and Keeley Hawes, from that opening scene forward, portray pivotal roles in "Echoes." And so does Amanda Fix, playing a teenager named Jules, whose story also becomes central along the way.

But you can cast wonderful actors without giving them quite enough to do. That's the big mistake "Orphan Black: Echoes" makes here. The most undeniably enjoyable element of the original "Orphan Black" series was watching Tatiana Maslany play so many wildly different roles - roles that often, thanks to clever editing and CGI, shared screen time with one another. She won an Emmy for displaying her versatility that way. Yet "Echoes" makes room for almost none of that variety and interplay in this first season, for Ritter, or anyone else, which is a shame. The series borrows very freely and effectively from everything from "Frankenstein" and "Battlestar Galactica" to Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse" and has provocative things to say not only about identity and memory, but about life, love and loss. Yet it doesn't reproduce the best element of the original "Orphan Black." What's missing are all those crazy, colorful clones - clones I'm sure Krysten Ritter would have loved to play and would have been great at doing. There's an irony here that's almost inescapable. "Orphan Black: Echoes," in trying to capture the essence of the original series about cloning, doesn't do that great a job of copying itself.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed "Orphan Black: Echoes." On tomorrow's show, we speak with Blitz Bazawule, director of the 2023 adaptation of "The Color Purple," the musical. He joins us to talk about his work as a director, painter, rapper and novelist. He has a new exhibit of paintings about his formative years growing up in Ghana. I hope you can join us.

To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram - @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.