USA’s “Colony” Looks Familiar but Manages to Surprise

Posted on January 15, 2016

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Hey, remember Falling Skies, the TNT series about plucky resistance fighters trying to secure their freedom under an oppressive alien occupation? And hey, remember V, the ABC remake of the cult classic series from the ’80s about living under an insidious alien occupation? Boy, we sure do. In the days after LOST ended, we (and seemingly every TV executive in existence) were looking for a genre series with adventurous undertones and deep mysteries to fill the void. We latched onto both shows, recapped the shit out of them for as long as we could sustain interest, but ultimately abandoned both shows to their fates. Neither of them had the energy and intensity required to make a story like that work. So when we saw the previews for USA’s new series Colony, which seemed to be about a family living in a Los Angeles controlled by alien overlords, we can’t say we were excited about it. Or even interested, if we’re being truthful.

But the show started getting some minor pre-debut buzz and even we had to admit that the casting of LOST’s Josh Holloway and The Walking Dead‘s Sarah Wayne Callies seemed like  pretty smart choices to make at the outset, so we decided to sit down and watch the first episode, fully expecting it to be the only episode we’ll watch.

Well, shut our mouths. That was a highly entertaining hour of television that introduced a world, its main characters, and the basic storylines going forward while never overwhelming the audience with a lot of exposition and managing to keep a brisk pace that kept us hooked the whole time. No, it’s not at all a new take on an old story. In fact, if the show wasn’t as good as it is, we’d definitely be lobbing criticisms of staleness and shameless copycatting of other shows. The funny thing is, we’re pretty sure some of the more overt ripoffs homages copycat scenes were entirely deliberate.

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Because when you put Josh Holloway in a cage and then force him to sit down with a nebbishy, manipulative sociopath who has total control over him but pretends to be his friend, it’s impossible not to have flashbacks to Ben Linus and the polar bear cages on LOST. And when you have Sarah Wayne Callies wandering streets completely empty of any life and hiding under vehicles when threatening figures arrive, there’s no way you’re not thinking of Lori wandering deserted Georgia highways and hiding under cars when herds of walkers pass by. These karaoke scenes of other, highly celebrated genre shows somehow seem to work, despite the obvious referencing. We suspect if other actors were cast in these parts it would seem more like a ripoff, but when you’ve got the same actors riffing on some of their most famous scenes, it feels more like a cheeky wink at the audience. A way of saying “We know what you want to see and we’re happy to give it to you.”

We realize “It rips off other shows, you guys!” is not exactly a stirring endorsement of the show, nor should it be taken as one. It’s just, to us, a knowing nod both at the audience and at the show’s progenitors. What really made the hour interesting to us, and set the show apart from other, lesser alien invasion stories, was the extremely high tension that permeates the episode and the excellent depiction of life under fascism. Every single person the Bowman family faces, from hospital nurses to black market medicine peddlers to teenage bullies to sociopathic bureaucrats, is a potential threat and the performances and direction make that very clear to you over and over again. It’s not edge-of-your-seat stuff; just a simmering undercurrent that plays under every interaction and winds up making you feel not just the fear the characters are feeling but the underlying rage that this is how their lives have turned out. Honestly, there are a couple of interactions that’ll make you want to punch someone.

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And here’s where the casting of Holloway and Callies really pays off. Sure, there’s a deliberate attempt to remind you of their more famous roles, but by the time the hour was done, we realized we had a newfound respect for both actors, who clearly know exactly what to do with material like this, based on their own resumes. Callies in particular is a revelation and we tend to think that any Walking Dead fan who screamed for Lori’s death for being such an irritating character might be surprised at how good she is when given material that doesn’t make her look like an idiot. Holloway doesn’t get to break out the charm in quite the same way when he was playing a sexy con-man, but he knows how to hit that sweet spot directly between “heroic figure” and “scared guy just trying to figure out how to stay alive.” She was badly served by a poorly written character in her previous series and he has found it difficult to find a successful show that plays to his strengths. It sounds weird, but we’re actually happy for both actors that they have this opportunity.

Sure, there’s always a chance this show won’t be a success. As we noted above, there’ve been plenty of attempts to tell this story before and several of them fizzled or flamed out. But there’s one more aspect of this show that gives us some hope that it’s got legs: the plotting and pacing, which is superb. LOST showrunner Carlton Cuse is behind this show and it seems to us he’s learned a bit since he launched the vampire apocalypse joint “The Strain” for FX, which has become something of a laughing stock and hate-watch for a lot of people. That show was obvious and silly and the characters all walk around saying and doing nonsensical things. But with Colony, Cuse seems to have returned to the plotting style that made LOST so great by doing something very little genre shows do anymore: withholding. It’s not just that several characters have secrets that you might not have seen coming (and that tend to be unexpected given the characters and actors playing them), it’s that very little about the current situation is explained. We keep calling this an alien occupation story and it certainly has all the trappings of one, with a Los Angeles walled off from the outside world, bombed-out buildings littering the background and ominous otherworldly drones enforcing law and order, but there’s one thing the show doesn’t have that all other alien occupation stories do: aliens. You never see one and the characters make it clear that no one knows anyone who’s seen one. Given the way the show clearly intends to be mystery-laden, we think this one idea may be the most enticing of all. The question here isn’t “What do the aliens look like and what do they want?” It’s more “Are there even aliens here?” which takes the entire story to a slightly surreal place. Everyone is living in fear and under oppression but no one knows who’s oppressing them or why. There’s something very modern about that take; something that taps into the current zeitgeist. People are angry and scared but they don’t know who they should be mad at and what it is that’s scaring them. It’s like a sci-fi take on the current presidential campaigns.

Will it last? Will it be great? Is it even worth watching? These are not things we can answer. All we know is, we want to know more. And what else could you ask for from a pilot episode?

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