Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Grading the Apocalypse – Which Shows Get It Right

In yesterday’s post on post-apocalyptic dystopian TV programs, I promised to analyze the three shows that are either currently airing or about to resume.  Here they are with my grade for each:

Revolution (NBC) -- This program borrows its apocalypse very heavily from Dies the Fire, S.M. Stirling’s first novel of The Change.  In both, the power doesn’t just go out—it fails completely as if there has been an electro-magnetic pulse.  Airplanes fall from the sky and start massive fires that can’t be extinguished because engines and motors don’t run.  Where Stirling doesn’t disclose the cause of the disaster, Revolution creates what appears to be a government-run-amok conspiracy. I’m not sure because we stopped watching after episode four.  Maybe five. 

Revolution, NBC
No electricity but
the hair dryers work
The show suffers from "networkitis."  Basically, the three big networks lack the stomach and the creativity to delve into what a post-apocalyptic world would really be like.  Granted, @RevolutionNBC takes place 15 years after the big event but countries don’t return to normal in the blink of an eye.  Hot water, for example, would be scarce and require effort to obtain.  Yet the characters always look like they just stepped out of the shower and had their hair done on set.  Which, of course, they did.  Even after days of travel, they all look totally spiffy.  And the clothes are more like grunge chic that you would find at the mall rather than homespun cloth and home-cobbled leather.  The community also grows neatly planted crops that look like something from a Fisher-Price farm toy.

Then there’s the issue of safety.  As mentioned yesterday, PADF scenarios are dangerous: the bad guys want to take whatever the good guys have worked hard to build. They are often heavy on the guns and light on the morals.  Food and women figure heavily in the spoils of conflict.  Yet the brash and wholesome teenager who is the star of the show goes striding around the countryside wearing a shirt that exposes her stomach and paying absolutely no attention to what might be hiding around the next corner or lurking under that bridge just ahead.  Supposedly she has lived through the apocalypse and even saw her mother shoot someone.  Still, she assumes the world is now a safe place and acts accordingly. 

Revolution shows a failure of grit, imagination, creativity, and willingness to show a dark side.  Also bad writing and awful dialogue.  Grade:  C

Defiance (SyFy) – The scenario here is an invasion by multiple types of aliens, collectively known as Votans, who have defeated humanity and tried to shape the earth to an environment more suitable to their needs.  The show calls this terraforming, although that means shaping another planet to be more like Earth.  What has happened here would more accurately be called xenoforming.  Earth is still a pretty chaotic and dangerous place but the good guys—humans and Votans alike—have created a new community called Defiance in the ruins of old St. Louis.  There’s imagination in this show, along with creativity, attention to detail and recognition of humanity’s darker side.  Not everyone is clean and blow-dried.  A brothel called the Need-Want serves the needs of all species.  A lot of St. Louis is buried in a fold of the earth created by the xenoforming.  People lie, cheat, and steal.  The mayor of Defiance and the madame of the brothel are sisters.  So far, so good.

Defiance, SyFy
Too-Human Votans
Where @DefianceWorld slips, however is in conceptualizing the aliens.  On the old Star Trek, fans used to joke about the “bumps program.”  That means taking an actor, applying some bumps to his forehead, changing the color of his skin and calling him an alien.  The five Votan races in Defiance are all too human.  Some are tall and thin and silver skinned.  Some have a better tan.  Some are short and squat and look like they wandered off the set of Planet of the Apes.  But whatever they look like—and whatever their culture on their home world—they behave just like humans.  Worse, they act just like Americans. 

Biologically, they are all different but we are expected to believe that a human girl will fall in love with a Votan boy and they will get married.  Presumably, they expect to have children.  Really?  Here on earth, we can breed a horse and a donkey to get a mule.  We can breed a lion and a tiger to get a liger.  But the offspring are sterile.  And we can’t breed a horse to a lion.  Nor would they want to get married.

So there are good things about Defiance, and we continue to watch it with hope.  But I’m worried that SyFy will pull their punches and turn a good science fiction concept into an alternate version of Modern Family with bumps.  Grade:  B

Falling Skies (TNT) –An alien attack has left earth devastated and largely depopulated.  Nothing works and the aliens who have done their best to destroy earth and everyone on it are not friendly, cuddly, or even vaguely humanoid.  Local militias have sprung up to protect the few surviving citizens and fight the aliens at the same time.  We follow the Second Mass, a resistance regiment under the command of an army veteran. They live on the run and fight when they can, trying to find more survivors and a safe place in which to live.

Falling Skies, Skitter
Skitter Not Getting Married
@FallingSkiesTNT has lots of creativity, more than enough imagination, great attention to detail and plenty of danger for everyone.  There are three kinds of aliens—skitters, mechs, and Overlords—and they are all pretty darn scary, even if one of them may not be quite what they seem. 

They abduct children and fit them with a harness that turns the kids into, well, you’ll find out.  As one of the skitters communicates, “the harness is not a thing, it’s a process.”

No one is well fed.  No one looks clean, spiffy or blow-dried. Clothes are dirty, skin is grubby, and a hot shower is a memory.  People sleep when they can and travel in a caravan of re-purposed cars, trucks, and buses running on siphoned gas. 

If you want hard, gritty, realistic science fiction, this is it.  I have watched two seasons of Falling Skies and I’m looking forward to its return next month.  I want to say more but I don't want to spoil the fun for folks who haven't found this show yet.  Grade: A

1 comment:

  1. Good reviews all, although I think "Grimm" is better than all of them. Why? "Grimm" has three things going for it that these three don't: a great overall concept; weird, quirky characters who entertain us; and, most important, a BIG BAD. On the unassailable scale of excellence--the Buffy Meter (if you don't know who Buffy is, you've got some homework to do)--I rate "Grimm" an 8.