Summer is a fantastic time for science fiction television, at least in quantity, if not in quality. Although I don’t intend to review any of these permanently, I put together an overview of four of the shows for your reference. I’m going to review them on their merits as shows, rather than referring back to any source material.
The premise is that God finally got sick of the world. In His absence, angels have come to earth, some to destroy humans, others to defend them. On Team Human is Michael the Archangel. On the other side is his brother Gabriel. The initial battle over for decades, the remaining humans are holed up in Vega (the former Las Vegas) under Michael’s protection. Outside of Vega, Archangels and lesser angels (known as Eight Balls) roam searching for humans. There are other outposts, but we don’t know very much about them yet except that one of them appears to be a matriarchy. Gabriel has been inactive, but the beginning of the show coincides with his return to the scene, and the commencement of more active attempts to destroy the humans so God will choose to return. Complicating things is that there is a Chosen One, a human hidden as a baby years ago by Michael and who is destined to end this conflict, who is revealed in the first episode. There are political machinations aplenty, alliances between humans and angels, and a (long-in-the-tooth) Romeo and Juliet romance between the Chosen One and the daughter of one of Vega’s leading politicians.
Now, on to the important things for summer sci-fi. The show moves along briskly, and there is at least one surprise twist in each show. (Admittedly it’s early days, and I’m not sure they can sustain it.) Special effects are tolerable, although I wouldn’t look too closely at the angels when they are flying if you want to keep that impression alive. There is lovely eye candy for all to enjoy (the actor who plays Michael has a slightly Keanu-esque vibe), and Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) plays a major role as a sleazy politico.
Unfortunately, Head is hamstrung by a terrible, flat American accent that is so bad I’d gladly accept almost any sort of excuse for it to go away. (“Oh, Senator, you now have a British accent because you were stung by an Accent Bee? Sounds good. Let’s never speak of it again.”) Finally, and unfortunately, the female characters take a distant second to the male ones. There is the Juliet figure; a powerful senator who is having sex with Michael; an Eerie Little Orphan Girl who might not factor into the show anymore; and Gabriel and Michael’s sister, Uriel, who is Mysterious.
OVERALL GRADE: C+.
Defiance debuted last year, and it was originally my favorite kind of sci-fi show: a Western set in space. A terraformed Earth, now with aliens integrated into daily life, goes about its business. There’s a reluctant lawman who’s a former mercenary, an idealistic mayor, scheming mobsters, and looming class warfare. Throw in the cultural differences between the many kinds of aliens and humans, and you’ve got yourself a nice basis for a show. OR SO I THOUGHT. Unfortunately, at the end of the season, the show veered off into a plot about the lawman’s adopted alien daughter being some sort of powerful goddess-type, and everything went to hell. The finale was painful to watch, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be back. However, it was on after Dominion, so I figured I’d give it a shot this season, and thus far I have been glad I did. The focus is back on politics and interpersonal relationships again, and the surly teen daughter has been dialed back. The eye candy is tolerable (I mean, it’s TV, after all), but it’s clearly not the focus of the show. What makes the show spark, though, is its female characters, who, although in part clichés, are brought to life by the actresses playing them. The wife of the town’s most powerful mobster, who was raised on her planet to submit to her husband, has embraced earth values and has moved from standard Lady Macbeth scheming to direct defiance of her husband. The mayor has been voted out of office, is a drug addict, and is running the local whorehouse for her missing sister while acting as a consultant to the new mayor, who has the hots for her. The teen daughter is still an irritant, but there are a few supporting characters with great promise, most notably the town doctor, who is a classic witty, cynical side character in the tradition of Eve Arden, if Eve Arden were a speckled alien.
OVERALL GRADE: SOLID B.
The Strain (FX):
The Strain doesn’t have anything truly novel about it, but if the pilot is any indication, it’s very entertaining and fast-paced. In a nutshell, a plane lands in New York City from Germany. All of the passengers are dead, or at least seem that way. The CDC investigates the deaths as possibly caused by some sort of infection, but things don’t add up: all of the victims have strange puncture wounds in their neck, and their internal organs appear to be mutating. A mysterious coffin that was on the plane disappears without a trace, and some of the people who are helping to investigate the situation are starting to die, too. I can practically hear you yawning, and I yawned writing this, but for whatever reason, this show was quite entertaining, possibly because it is from Guillermo del Toro, who has a lot of experience with horror and sci-fi. It also has a good cast, including Sean Astin, who is very engaging in what has been a smallish role this far.
OVERALL GRADE: A-, based on the première
The Leftovers (HBO):
The premise is that 2% of the world’s population disappears one day. The show is set three years afterwards, and shows the emotional and social aftermath of this event. There is a bewildered, angry, sheriff, whose teenager daughter is clearly dangerously depressed; his son, who has become a henchman for a creepy cult leader who preys on underage girls; and his wife, who has joined some sort of cult where all the people refuse to speak, chain smoke constantly, and dress all in white. (If the fact that they chain smoke and wear white doesn’t reveal this, I will: they live in a very bizarre reality.) There is also Christopher Eccleston (that’s the Ninth Doctor to y’all) as a reverend who has lost most of flock in his zealous effort to prove that whatever happened to the 2% was NOT the Rapture. (If nothing else proves it, the fact that the entire cast of Perfect Strangers, J-Lo and Gary Busey were among them should make it clear.)
OVERALL GRADE: I’ll give it a B- for now, a grade that was bumped up due to a recent Eccleston-focused episode, and because the performances and production are good. It has a strong cast, including Amy Brenneman, doing some heavy wordless lifting as the sheriff’s chain-smoking, cult-joining wife; Liv Tyler, just kind of milling around for the moment as a lost soul; and Justin Theroux as the sheriff, who spends a certain percentage of each show shirtless (if that’s what you’re into). However, there was also a scene of implied animal violence that was pretty awful in the first episode, so if you are going to watch it, be forewarned.
And which ones will I be watching? All of them for the moment, but Dominion needs to show some spark or I’ll be done in two, and The Leftovers has to start making some sense during this next episode or I’m dunzo/gonzo.