Everyone with eyes knows that we are living in the midst of a television renaissance. Ever since the creative breakthrough of HBO's
and the proliferation of viewing options, we've been escaping the staid old television paradigms of the past. The big networks are facing ever stiffer competition, which can only be a good thing.
There is an embarrassment of riches, but plenty of wanna-be prestige television, too. It can be hard enough sorting through some of the bad offerings and keeping up with the megahits everyone is already watching, like Game of Thrones, True Detective, and The Walking Dead. But there are also two under-watched gems worth making time for: FX's The Americans and BBC America's Orphan Black. Both are critically acclaimed thrillers, deserving of hours of thrallish commitment. They debuted last year and are set apart by flawless performances and the kind of assured scripts that used to be cinema's sole preserve.
The basic premise of Orphan Black - a Canadian sci-fi starring a cast of unknowns - unfolds in the first two minutes of the pilot. A down-and-out petty criminal, played by Tatiana Maslany, steps off a train in Toronto and sees a woman who looks exactly like her. Before the weirdness sets in, horror does: her look-alike jumps in front of a moving train without uttering a word.
Most of the trailers for the second season - which premiered this weekend - give away the premise of the first, but there's no need to spoil the mystery of the first few episodes. Especially because the show's reveal is wonderfully disciplined. The creators trust the audience to figure things out with Maslany's character, who doesn't even begin to understand the truth until the third episode. The pacing of the first few shows alone is proof that the series rises above the bulk of the sci-fi and horror pack.
Maslany herself is a revelation, a fact that did not escape a variety of award-dispensing bodies last year. Shows that call on an actor to play multiple distinct roles have a tendency to fail if the lead can't pull it off - see (or don't) Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. Orphan Black succeeds in large part because Maslany effortlessly pulls off one, two, many characters. Her performances are another good excuse for binge watching.
The Americans also requires its two principals - Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys - to wear multiple faces as Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, a pair of deep-cover KGB spies in the suburbs of Washington soon after Ronald Reagan's election. The show has just the right period touches, both musical (Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers") and historical. Instead of painting the Soviets as cartoonish villains or totalitarian masterminds, the Russians appear to be driven instead by a feverish fear that the bellicose new president is a madman bent on their destruction.
Part of The Americans' power is its anchor in historical events, and the depiction of its KGB agents - in the embassy and in the field - as driven by motivations as complex as their American counterparts': greed, love, patriotism, and, in a few cases, a belief in socialism (which seems strongest in Russell's character, who hasn't seen the U.S.S.R. since the mid-1960s).
The first season didn't have Orphan Black's near perfect pacing, but Russell and Rhys more than made up for the occasionally uneven plot. Now in the midst of the second season (the ninth episode will air Wednesday), the show has hit its stride, and The Americans' pull is even stronger.
Neither series is struggling, so there is no danger of imminent cancellation, but neither has come close to being a hit. The Americans premiere netted around three million viewers, but the show never came close to approaching that height again, while Orphan Black averaged roughly 600,000 viewers an episode last year. (For comparison, 15.7 million people tuned in to the recent Walking Dead season finale.) Both shows are heavily reliant on online viewings and DVR, with FX chief John Landgraf claiming that "live viewing is essentially just 20 percent of [The Americans'] whole." Less than two million caught the second-season premier live, but almost 3.3 million caught it on DVR. Both shows are exclusively available through Amazon's Prime's Instant Video, although the company - like its competitors at Neflix and Hulu - does not divulge viewership data.
Orphan Black is on BBC America at 9 p.m. Saturdays. FX shows The Americans at 10 p.m. Wednesdays.