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Orphan Black erupts into second season with new intrigue

Hard to know whether to say "It's back!" or "They're back!"

We're talking Orphan Black here (Saturday, 9 p.m., Space), as it returns for its second season. On the one hand, the show is back, on the other hand the show is Tatiana Maslany playing multiple characters – them, the clones, some weird, some ordinary women, and some demented or lost. It's both "it" and "them."

The series had a slow-burning start last year. Then viewer and critical interest picked up as everyone realized the startling achievement of Maslany, playing so many characters. The acting chops. The technical difficulties of having so many versions of one clone in the same scenes, time after time. All good. We're looking at an outlandishly talented actor in Maslany.

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Forgotten in the fuss was the thematic significance – the depth and deftness of the show's journey into the representation of women. The show is more than a mystery and a thriller with chase scenes and narrow escapes from no-goodniks. It dwells on variations of one female character. It's about identity.

It opened with central character Sarah assuming the identity of a woman who looked exactly like her. (Before the clone plot twist was clear.) It got way more complicated than she assumed. The women may look the same, but they are vastly different as individuals and lead wildly different lives. Then it turned out there are many other women who also look exactly like her. Thus we have a circumstance in which a woman with the same features as another turns out to be a neurotic, orthodox suburban housewife while her mirror-like image is a serious scientist. Orphan Black is, in theme, a rebuke to the idea that woman can be judged on their superficial appearance.

What the first two episodes of season two tell us is that there seems to be less of that leitmotif. Building on the speed and pace of the ending to season one, the show goes full-bore into action, drama and new intrigue.

While the core issue of streetwise Sarah Manning (Maslany) reuniting with her young daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler), and Mrs. S. (Maria Doyle Kennedy), the foster mother to both Sarah and Felix (Jordan Gavaris), is resolved, the drama moves at a bewildering pace. New and maddeningly enigmatic characters appear, chases and gunplay erupt and in the opening two episodes the show barely catches its breath to dwell on the overall plot thesis.

Some series that end season one with rapid developments and a cliffhanger then start the second season with a pause to rejig the pacing. Orphan Black doesn't. If you were gripped by the end of season one, you'll be swept into the whirl of events that relentlessly ensue.

To fans this will matter little. They know about the mysterious Dyad Institute and the work of Dr. Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer), who is trying to control the creations. They know about the equally mysterious cult group the Proleatheans, determined to wipe out the clones. The action sizzles. But what the start of the second season reveals is that Orphan Black is a genre show – a sci-fi action thriller that will, in the interests of maintaining a genre show's logic and pace, abandon subtlety. Still, Maslasny is magnificent as ever and that's always been the reason to watch.

Also airing this weekend

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Battle for Rio (Sunday 10 p.m., CBC NN on The Passionate Eye) is a pre-World Cup and pre-Olympics look at the attempts to pacify and improve the violent slums of Rio de Janeiro. Rio is, of course, stunningly beautiful and blighted. As filmmaker Gonzalo Arijon says, "If you're lucky enough to live in paradise, why make it hell?"

What he does is examine those slums, the favelas, where the army came, took control and local police services were established. What he finds is that in many favelas the locals welcomed the police but the promises of better services were not fulfilled. In particular, areas distant from the centre of Rio are still largely controlled by warring drug gangs. There is daily violence and the locals prefer the codes of the drug gangs to the empty promises of the police and the state.

It is emphasized that the process of "pacification" is a "work in progress," and the doc is hopeful. It asks us to look at former gangster Claudio (Gaucho) Piuma, once one of the most powerful drug traffickers in Rio. Out on partial release from prison, it is claimed he has persuaded 3,200 traffickers to demobilize. There's the hope.

All times ET. Check local listings.

Follow me on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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