'Colony': TV Review

COLONY - Pilot Episode 101 - H 2016
Paul Drinkwater/USA Network
Alien vs. (human) predator.

USA's intriguing sci-fi series, co-created by 'Lost's' Carlton Cuse, explores the human divisions that form after an extraterrestrial invasion.

What if they made an alien invasion series and no aliens came? That's something of the premise of USA's promising new science fiction series, Colony, co-created by Ryan Condal and the prolific Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel, The Strain). There are E.T.'s around… or so we're told. Throughout the first six episodes (of ten total) sent out for review, characters speak in glum tones of an event called "the arrival"; the way they say the term sounds euphemistic in the extreme. And no sooner have we been introduced to our protagonists — the seemingly contented L.A. family known as the Sullivans (not their real last name) — than the slickly cozy veneer begins to crack.

First off there's that ring of barbed wire around the family's sun-dappled home. Then there's the fact that almost everyone in L.A. appears to be riding bicycles — the show's cleverest conceit. (Where are all the cars?!?) It finally becomes clear that this fictionalized city of angels has been completely upended when we catch sight of the towering wall closing it off from the outside world, as well as the otherworldly drones who police the airspace to make sure no human steps wrong. (For your sins, you'll get a laser through the back or chest.)

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Where do the Sullivans fit in all this? They're actually named Will and Katie Bowman (Josh Holloway and Sarah Wayne Callies), and they've used this apocalyptic event as a pretext to scrub themselves of the past and hide in plain sight with their two children Bram and Gracie (Alex Neustaedter and Isabella Crovetti-Cramp). But a deep pain still lingers, as their third child went missing after "the arrival" and may be on the other side of that wall. Using his skills as a former Army intelligence officer, Will attempts to sneak past tight security. In the process, he's captured by one of the unseen aliens' villainous human emissaries, Proxy Alan Snyder (Peter Jacobson, marvelously embodying privileged sleaze), who tasks Will with bringing down a rising resistance force led by a mysterious revolutionary known only as Geronimo.

Plot, plot, plot—said three times over because the first three installments of the series (all directed by Juan José Campanella, a TV veteran who won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for the 2009 Argentine thriller The Secret in Their Eyes) are weighed down with story and setup. It's a bit of Lost syndrome; unsurprising since both Cuse and Holloway are alumni of that series and initially seem to be trading on its renown and frequent infamy. Puzzle box mystery narrative? Check. Grizzled bad-boy antihero? Check. Highbrow references wrapped in lowbrow garb? Check. (Lost had John Locke. Colony has William Faulkner, namechecked here by Katie's pub "The Yonk," a deliberately misspelled allusion, as she explains in one of the later installments, to the great Southern writer's fictional county of Yoknapatawpha.)

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Despite his Academy Award-winning street cred, Campanella's direction of the first three episodes is merely serviceable, while Checco Carese and Jeff Jur's cinematography is of the irritatingly up-close-and-shakycam variety that undercuts the shock and awe of the show's devastated setting. (You keep wishing they'd hold still for a moment and let the visuals really worm their way into the psyche.) Holloway and Callies also take some time growing into their roles, so what keeps you watching early on are the stellar guest turns by everyone from the always-welcome Kathy Baker as a no-nonsense head of Homeland Security to Carl "Apollo Creed" Weathers as Will's world-weary partner on the task force dedicated to taking down Geronimo.

By episode four, titled "Blind Spot," the show finds a nice groove all around, opening with an inventively staged first-person teaser involving the merciless Red Hat soldiers who carry out the will of Proxy Snyder and his ilk. There are still plot twists before what seems like every commercial break (and USA has demanded critics remain mum on most of the specifics, lest a flying drone laser us at our keyboards). But the hyperkinetic storytelling finally meshes nicely with Will and Katie's increasing desperation (let's just say each spouse has plenty of reason to distrust the other), the camerawork gets steadier and more observant, and the extraterrestrial antagonists prove to be a fascinating MacGuffin—the big, tall terrible giants in the sky whose power comes from being entirely absent. (It would hardly be surprising if it's revealed that the invaders don't actually exist.) The series is ultimately more interested in exploring the fear-stoking foreign agents lurking within humanity—those that pit us, often pathetically and violently, against each other.