TERRA NOVA

In “First Look/Last Look,” I am doing quick reviews of selected new fall shows, panning for gold in the fetid riverbed of the 2011-2012 network television season. While I hope this experiment yields at least one new show that I will want to add to my regular viewing—if not reviewing—schedule, I’m not holding my breath. Call me pessimistic, but, in most cases, I expect my first look to also be my last.

I consider it part of my sacred responsibility as an uncredentialed internet crank to remember that there is an important distinction to be made between shows that are bad and shows that are just not my cup of tea. I try very hard to remember that there are other demographics, other tastes, other expectations for television besides my own, and that my dislike for a program doesn't necessarily mean that it sucks.

So I do try to be fair and objective—but, to be honest, I usually fail. You see, when I try to take the next step, and break down why something doesn't work for me, I almost always arrive at one crucial, essential criterion: smart. I can enjoy almost every kind of show, in any genre, and I cheerfully embrace programs that are clearly not aimed at my particular age, demographic, or gender.

But I require smart. I'm a big fan of smart. If I have a fundamental belief in life, it's that smart is almost always better than dumb. So I always run into trouble whenever I try to give a show the benefit of the doubt and say, "Well, this show is just not made for me," because what I'm really saying is, "Well, this show is made for stupid people." And that's problematic: I don't believe there really are sufficient numbers of truly stupid people to justify all the programming that seems to be aimed at them, nor do I believe that even the stupidest members of our society are better off if we all agree to lower the cultural bar to accommodate them.

All of which is to narrow in on why I was so disappointed with Terra Nova, the new FOX series from executive producer Steven Spielberg. I had big hopes for Terra Nova, which promised excellent production values, a decent cast, and a potentially-intriguing sci-fi premise. Unfortunately, "Genesis," the pilot episode, spends two banal hours dumbing its potential down into lowest-common-demoninator television pap. It's not horrible: it's just not good.

The best parts of "Genesis" were, for me, the first parts, and—unfortunately—the parts to which we are unlikely to return. It opens in the year 2149, with the planet decimated by overpopulation and pollution. Though not startlingly original, these early scenes have energy, and there is an interesting Philip K. Dick-like (Dickish?) quality to this dystopian society in which cops ransack your apartment looking for the extra children you're not supposed to have.

Having one more than the legal limit of two children is what lands police officer Jim Shannon (Jason O'Mara) in jail, though this plot seems to exist only to give the opening act some ineffective tension. After what is supposed to be something like two years—but feels like about five minutes of narrative time—Jim's saintly wife Elizabeth (Shelly Conn) helps Jim break out of jail with ridiculous ease. Elizabeth, you see, is a doctor, and she has been recruited to help populate Terra Nova, a pristine paradise 85 million years in the past. Before the half-hour mark, the Shannons have jumped as a family through the time-gate to become part of a fenced-in Cretaceous community overseen by gruff Commander Taylor (Stephen Lang, who does everything but literally chomp a cigar).

The time-crack plot device that makes this temporal relocation plan possible is explained by Jim and Elizabeth's daughter, Maddy (Naomi Scott), in some of the clunkiest expository dialogue ever delivered. "Oh, look, it's the probe! You know, the one they sent through when they first discovered the time-fracture? They sent this back, and they learned this is a different time-stream, so if we kill a butterfly here it won't change the future and make it so we were never born, exposition dump, exposition dump, exposition dump." (That's not verbatim, but damn close.)

That scene—and the fact that Maddy is a stereotypical science nerd in the body of an American Apparel model—goes a long way to explaining what's wrong with Terra Nova. This is a show that does not trust its audience to be smart enough to follow along without being spoon-fed information, nor does it trust us to relate to any but stock TV characters.

The most egregious of the stock characters is Josh (Landon Liboiron), the Shannon's surly teen-age son, whose by-the-book rebellion against his father occupies most of these introductory two hours. Josh is in the Cretaceous period for about five minutes before he's fallen in with a thrill-seeking crowd of teenage troublemakers, led by the winsome Skye (Allison Miller), who leads Josh over the fence and into the jungle to be go swimming, drink moonshine, and be menaced by dinosaurs. Any hope I had that Terra Nova would turn out to be more than Jusassic Park: The Series dwindled significantly during this interminable (and all-too familiar) children-trapped-in-vehicle dinosaur siege.

The bigger problem is that Terra Nova does not trust its audience to follow along without being spoon-fed information or clubbed over the head with foreshadowing. All information is delivered in patronizing chunks, and "clues" to mysteries are delivered in orderly, formulaic fashion.  There is, for example, a group of outcast settlers led by Mira (Christine Adams), who are working against the main settlement for purposes unknown. There are mysterious, alien-equation writings on the rocks outside the fence, which appear to be the work of Commander Taylor's missing son. There is, we are told, a "real" reason for the existence of Terra Nova, which has something to do with controlling the future by controlling the past. All of this feels derivative of better creations—most obviously Lost—and all of it is delivered too soon, too obviously, and with too many flashing lights and sirens to ensure we don't miss their significance.

The biggest problem is that Terra Nova seems to be leading us (patronizingly, by the hand) to somewhere that doesn't promise to be very interesting. Some people argue that it's unfair to judge a show by its pilot, but it's an argument I've never understood. Yes, some shows take a while to settle in and find their footing, but surely the pilot is the one episode that has been carefully crafted to tease us with what a show can be. God knows the much-imitated Lost had its problems—I gave up around Season Three, actually—but it was a show that challenged its viewers, and trusted them to be smart enough to keep up. Right from its extraordinary pilot episode it introduced us to so many fascinatingly complex characters—and so many real, mind-blowing mysteries—that we couldn't imagine where it was going and couldn't help but be intrigued.

Despite its obvious ambitions, however, Terra Nova seems to be more Land of the Lost than Lost. I've seen all of its characters before, and my mind is not remotely blown by its mysteries.I can imagine exactly where this show going, and, sadly, I'm not the least bit interested in going with it.

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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2 thoughts on “TERRA NOVA

  1. Um, yeah…I tried Terra Nova, because it was a little bit like an old Heinlein YA book (Tunnel in the Sky) at first glance. And a bit like Earth 2. I really tried. I wasn't even burdening it with high expectations…I just wanted something to watch while on the treadmill. And it just didn't deliver. It could be used for sci-fi cliche bingo.

    "Smart" seems to be the kiss of death. Maybe because smart = high production costs? But then you have "Firefly"…. Or maybe smart viewers are less likely to buy the advertised junk.

    If they'd just say that, I'd be willing to buy poptarts or whatever to keep something good on the air.

  2. Since there's little else on Monday nights, I've tried to watch Terra Nova again, but never get more than a few minutes into it. Apparently it's on the bubble for renewal, which is slightly encouraging: if this was a hit, I would be even more depressed.

    On the other hand, whatever happens, it's almost guaranteed to air more episodes than Firefly ever got.

    Now I'm depressed again.

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