Half a decade ago, a strange thing happened. Everyone wanted to make the next Mad Men or Breaking Bad. And who could blame them? 2010’s development cycle produced a slew of uninspired, quickly canceled knock-offs like Playboy Club, Pan Am, and Lonestar. 2016 may be another year of a TV hangover, with trailblazers like Mr. Robot, UnReal, and Master of None copied with little skill and less heart.
If 2016 turns out to be another year of uninspired copy cats, then we might look back at Colony as the show that represented exactly what the year in television was all about. After the success of Mr. Robot, it appears that USA wants to transition its brand from slick hot-guys-in-suits dramas to high-end paranoia sci-fi. If that’s the destination then Colony isn’t going to get them there.
World building is essential good science fiction, whether its the carefully contained laboratory of Ex Machina or the vast expanse of Battlestar Galactica. The greatest sci-fi, from Star Trek to Battlestar create new world for audiences to explore, original and detailed down to the stitching of the uniforms and arrangement of the windows on the space ships. Colony makes a huge mistake by raising all kinds of questions about the new world they’ve created without bothering to build much of a world to explore. By the end of the pilot, all we know is that some kind of alien race has invaded and turned Los Angeles into the West Bank or Berlin with more palm trees. In this version of Los Angeles, not much is different from our own save a Donald Trump style wall between Santa Monica and Los Angeles and a secret police that kidnaps dissidents in the night.
What does the rest of the world look like? How does this change day to day life? What are the aims of the invaders? What is the resistance doing to stop them? All that we learn is that there is an authoritarian regime, a resistance, and secrets just like in every fascist sci-fi dystopia from 1984 on down. Other than that big ass wall, there is nothing new, nothing remarkable, nothing worth coming back for.
Original voices in front of and behind the camera were a hallmark of 2015’s best shows. Breakout stars like Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) and Shiri Appleby (UnReal) offered something new and different in leading roles, in terms of their look and the interior life of their characters. Colony’s leading man Josh Holloway is about as familiar as you can get. The forever five o’clock shadowed actor already anchored a hit in Lost and looks and sounds like about a dozen other actors from other shows made since. Sarah Wayne Callies is equally dull and previously appeared on an equally popular show, The Walking Dead.
The dullness of the performances is spread evenly through the cast. No quirky character actors or intriguing bit players come to the rescue. Stormtrooper style soldiers, secret rebellion operatives, and innocent bystanders are equally boring as they force out equally hackneyed dialogue. A teenager says he “wants to get his beak wet.” A suspected terrorist in a military prison asks for a phone call. Not only is the dialogue weak, but at times you wonder if anyone involved has ever heard a person speak before.
What science fiction lacks in world building, it can make up for by shining a light on current events. The world can look like our own if it heightens and highlights our anxieties. Just ask Kurt Vonnegut. Colony seemed prepared to to attempt a commentary on something: be it the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank or the language surrounding refugees and immigrants in our own country. Instead of drawing sharp comparisons to the real world, Colony opts for hinting blandly the perils of fascism. Words like “collaborators,” “blocs,” and “resistance” drift in and out of the dialogue, half-heartedly evoking Nazi Germany without bothering to show us particular atrocities or make any particular point.
Besides the wooden acting, trite dialogue, empty world, and lack of a discernible point, what does this show have going for it? After the lackluster pilot, the only silver lining is that the show left so much unsaid. When you finish the pilot, you won’t know where things are going from here. You know that there is an occupying force, but you haven’t met them. You know that there is a resistance, but you get no sense of the work they’re doing. You know that our main characters are caught in the middle, but you don’t know where their loyalties lie.
Normally, this kind of mystery could propel a show forward. Learning the true identity of Don Draper or Mr. Robot can keep us invested episode after episode and even season after season of a better show. The problem with Colony is that while we have lots of questions by the end of the pilot, we have so little motivation to wait around for answers. Showrunner Carlton Cuse’s series Lost kept its legions of fans guessing at every turn, but that’s because he and Damon Lindelof built a quality show around those questions.
Colony offers questions, but not much else.