First it was outstanding, then it was overrated and now it is trying to claw its way back to coherence and relevance.
Orphan Black (Space, 10 p.m.) returns for its fourth season tonight with a lot at stake. This is underlined by a letter to the press and fans from creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett. It says: "We knew by the end of last season that we wanted to go 'back to the beginning' this year. … Back to that fateful moment on the train platform between Sarah and Beth that kicked off the series. Back to our core sisterhood of Cosima, Alison, Sarah, and the black sheep Helena. Back, too, to Rachel, Sarah's true nemesis. And finally, back to 'Neolution,' the secretive scientific cult lurking behind everything since Season 1."
It's not just fans of the series who were disappointed by the second and third seasons. The show began to sag in terms of prestige and attention. Although Tatiana Maslany finally got some formal recognition for her extraordinary work playing multiple characters, the series itself was revealed to be a lot of vapid rambling and dreary story mythology.
Thus, going back to the beginning is an admirable tack to take. And, yes, it is literally the beginning – when Sarah (Maslany) sees a woman, Beth, her spitting image, jump in front of a train. Only by taking Beth's identity does she begin to grasp the clone conspiracy in which she is ensnared.
Beth was a cop and so this season starts, refreshingly, as a cop-driven mystery. And we are taken, teasingly, into the reasons why Beth was driven to take her own life just at the moment Sarah saw her.
To begin, there's a mutilated body discovered buried in the woods. Beth gets a tip about this from a mysterious new clone, a paranoid hacker named M.K. As the story unfolds, characters familiar from later seasons are reintroduced, and it is refreshing to see both Alison, the suburban mom, and Cosima, the PhD student who always seems romantically entangled with another woman, being re-established.
The trick that works, on the evidence of the first few episodes, is the emphasis on thriller rather than labyrinthine conspiracy. The plainness of the plotting also further highlights Maslany's outrageous skill in playing so many versions of the same woman. There are fewer gratuitous distractions from that. And there's even a sly sense of humour, something that has been lamentably missing, especially in the third season. This is, again, a series with an energetic dynamic and its freshness indicates just how far astray the series was taken by Manson and Fawcett. Sometimes, a cop solving a mystery is the best storyline of all.
Part of what is at stake is the show's status with BBC America. It is being moved from Saturday to Thursday nights, which puts it in front of many more potential viewers. And a lot of competition. Rather than being a weekend cult show, it is being pushed toward the mainstream, and a chat show about Orphan Black will air on BBC America and Space after each new episode.
In the context of the woeful state of Canadian TV, it is rather important that Orphan Black get its mojo back. The series promised so much, set the bar high and then wasted the opportunity. It started smart and entertaining, and everyone involved deserved the international praise. But for all its merits, Orphan Black never belonged in the canon of this Golden Age of TV. Now, at least, it has been rebooted and improved. Maybe. We hope so.
Also airing Thursday
Game of Silence (NBC, Global, 10 p.m.) is super-heavy on plot, flashbacks and brooding mystery. It's about four friends in Texas who, in the late 1980s, were sent to a juvenile detention centre after injuring a woman while they were in a stolen car. Terrible things happened in detention. Years later, one of the group meets one of the guards from the detention centre and beats him savagely. Now the guys regroup and try to save their friend from going back to jail. If you're not hooked in the first 30 minutes, you are bound to give up on it.