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Close Encounters
The Earth’s Surface is on the Threshold of an Invasion of New Sci-Fi shows
By Jessica Mathews

 
   

Last season, “Lost” shook the airwaves as audiences flocked to the addictive adventure series. This season, all of the new long-term mysteries seem to be coming from another origin. Each of the major networks has a new series involving mysterious life forms threatening to change Earth as we know it. But so far “Invasion,” “Threshold” and “Surface” have failed to capture the intrigue or the viewers of “Lost.”

Concept, or “big idea,” shows are always a difficult balancing act. Keeping an audience involved in the same story week after week is no small feat. Even though “The X-Files” had lots of other cases, its grand conspiracy was so convoluted by the end of nine seasons worth of Chris Carter and Co. modifying the plot to keep it interesting that no one cared when the questions were allegedly answered. At the end of last season, “Lost” viewers noticed that almost nothing had been resolved. So one has to wonder about the long-term prognosis for any concept show that hasn’t found a formula to start anew each season, like “24.” Just a third of the way through their first seasons, it is impossible to know if any of these new shows can handle the test of time, but “Invasion” and “Threshold” still have potential while “Surface” already seems endless.

“Invasion” (Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC) has been given the time slot following “Lost” and is the closest to it in terms of structure. It begins during a hurricane in a small town near the Everglades where, strangely, hundreds of lights are seen falling from the sky during the storm. Park ranger Russell’s ex-wife, Mariel, is caught in the storm and found the next day, alive and naked in the wilderness.

Mariel (Kari Matchett) is not the same afterwards and it becomes clear that there are others with similar experiences. Mariel and Russell have each remarried, him to a perky and recently pregnant TV reporter named Larkin, and her to the town’s sheriff, eerily played by William Fichtner. Larkin brings her conspiracy-blogging brother into the mix. Once you add in the Sheriff’s flirty teenage daughter and two kids from Mariel and Russell’s marriage, you’ve got quite a diverse group, so when the sheriff quarantines the town there’s plenty of potential for intriguing interactions.

The strength of “Invasion” is definitely a story that can keep audiences interested. The writers certainly know how to time the revelations to both the audience and the characters. The biggest problem with “Invasion” is that so far, with the exception of the sheriff, the characters aren’t terribly intriguing. In fact, most of them feel over simplified. The great thing about “Lost” is that the characters start out as mysteries to each other so there is uncertainty in everything. Luckily, the addictive storyline should buy “Invasion” some time to develop the characters.

“Threshold” (Fridays at 8 p.m. on CBS) takes the audience into a government conspiracy, when the appearance of a UFO forces a top-secret strategy into action. Carla Gugino plays Dr. Molly Caffrey, a contingency analyst whose plan, code name “threshold,” is initiated. Deputy National Security Advisor J.T. Baylock (Charles S. Dutton) and mysterious sexual-tension-generating agent Cavennaugh (Brian Van Holt) lead the covert operation. Caffrey’s plan requires three of America’s top scientists to come aboard: biological specialist Dr. Nigel Fenway (Brent Spiner), mechanical genius Lucas Pegg (Rob Benedict) and top mathematician and linguist Arthur Ramsey, played by the incomparable Peter Dinklage (“The Station Agent”).

Fortunately, the intelligent team and government resources make this the only show in which the characters are actually aware of what they are dealing with. In the pilot, an alien craft reveals itself to a naval ship, and by the time the team makes it to the vessel most of the crew are found physically distorted or killed. When the one survivor jumps overboard and ends up at Caffrey’s house, it is clear that he is not human anymore. The team figures out that the violent sound the UFO made changed the DNA of people and animals into a triple helix. The triple helix looks a lot like the biohazard symbol and can also change the shape of infected puddles of blood or watch hands into its shape.

Since the two-hour pilot, the show’s structure has become a lot like all of CBS’s procedurals. Each episode begins with an alien occurrence and then the team is sent to investigate. By the end the team has averted the new problem and figured out another piece of the puzzle. This makes the show less predictable in terms of quality, because sometimes you get an cool episode in a creepy military academy and other times you get a girl who is becoming an alien by listening to her MP3 player.

The characters are the real reason to watch “Threshold.” The three scientists’ giant egos play well off each other and their new colleagues who are used to government work. It is also nice to see that the scientists relocated from academia are still a bit squeamish about violating people’s constitutional rights, even in the name of saving them from becoming aliens. “Threshold’s” future is still up in the air—it is the only one of these three shows that hasn’t been picked up for the entire season. It would be a shame to lose such a talented cast and interesting characters when “Surface” is still on the air.

“Surface” (Mondays at 8 p.m. on NBC) feels like a never ending miniseries, pairing some nice visual effects with material that seems recycled from a number of sources, quite a few by Spielberg alone. This show separates itself from the other two by having giant sea monsters come up from the center of the earth instead of invading aliens.

The story is split between three main characters as well as various government officials and random victims of the prehistoric life form. The show’s poster girl is Laura Daughtery (Lake Bell) a marine biologist and single mother who is the first to see the creature on a research assignment and soon finds her career destroyed and life in danger because she is dedicated to scientifically identifying the life form. The next character is Rich, a Louisiana insurance salesman whose life is changed when he sees his brother dragged to the bottom of the sea. He begins drawing black holes on every available surface, in scenes highly reminiscent of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

And in the most dragged-out storyline, Miles, a 14-year-old rich kid, adopts a new pet that resembles an evil gremlin. After watching his pet wreak havoc in a grocery store, it seems like Miles could do something before it starts eating through his parents’ floor, but alas it will give him a reason to run away.

After six episodes, the most memorable moment doesn’t involve any of these characters. Just when it seems that a boat of Australians is about to get attacked by a sea monster, there is a cut to an overhead shot that reveals that the creature will be swallowing the ship in a single bite. I makes you feel like most of the time, “Surface” isn’t even trying.

Creating a good “big idea” series is a challenge. There’s a reason there are so many crime procedurals. It’s a lot easier to think of a new variation on shooting someone with a steering-wheel lock every week than to create a story arch that can fill a whole season. Maybe none of these shows has what it takes to be a long-term success, but if they go off the air, their creators will have an excuse to not resolve all those peculiar developments.

jessica[at]saltshakermagazine.com

 

 
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