Thursday, June 01, 2006

Whaliens, away!: Invasion, season one

And, yea, the networks did devote hours upon hours of time to stories of aliens living among us. But only one of these shows did go on to receive a full season. And, lo, that show was canceled.

Invasion was doomed by doing something that television rarely does well (indeed, something that television rarely does at all). It created a tone of foreboding suspense and then tried to sustain that over a season. The show moved glacially for its first six or seven episodes. By the time the plot kicked in, it was already too late.

I wasn't as big a fan of Invasion as some, but I always appreciate it when television tries to do something different, and Invasion was different, all right. It was an attempt to marry the creeping dread of 1950s science fiction (often paranoid) with a weekly serial that had a metaphor at its center that was just vague enough to seem to stand for anything and everything (I liked to read it as a commentary on right wing hegemony, but I know many who read it in just the opposite fashion).

The series was pinned down by two fantastic performances from William Fichtner and Kari Matchett. Playing a couple in their second marriage (Matchett had been married to the show's ostensible hero, played by Eddie Cibrian, while Fichtner's wife had died), the two soon both found themselves as "hybrids," recreations of the people they had been made by some creature that lived in the water. Fichtner, it was revealed, had been a hybrid for a long time and hoped to control the situation as more and more people changed (including his wife). As Matchett grew more used to her new powers (a nice metaphor for how we can discover ourselves once we're out of a relationship we're not at our best in), her children began to turn on her (just as the children of divorce will often come to find one of their parents "alien"). And Fichtner couldn't keep the situation under control, deceived by his underlings, sent on the run, forced to improvise, as good a stand-in for any unwinnable war as anything (the broodingly apocalyptic undertone of the show was a nice change from most sorts of these shows -- it was pretty clear the aliens would win eventually).

Where the show crumbled (and where, I think, the show lost Lost's lead-in) was in the plots involving the "hero" Russell. He was too bland of a straight man. Where Lost's hero has become something of a psychotic power-hungerer, Russell was just. . .a guy. This might have been okay, but he was the dullest guy ever, and, as our stand-in, he just wasn't good enough. It was much easier to side with the aliens, and that tore the show apart from the inside out.

That said, I think the show was getting to a point where it would have been very addictive. The scenes from the next-to-last episode where the hybrid army, posing as the real army, forced regular humans into the ocean to be converted by the glowing creatures were genuinely chilling, something that can rarely be said for broadcast television.

Invasion was, I think, too close to our every day lives. Its insistence on tugging directly at the dark secrets in the human heart probably doomed it from day one. When it comes to American art, the message that when it's us vs. them, the them may just be a bunch of people trying to do the right thing who went for a swim at the wrong time is one that many don't really want to consider. Not that I blame them. Most people watch TV to escape, and Invasion, on its own terms, refused to be escapist.

On the other hand, we got one season of fairly strong television. We got enough stuff to fuel fan fiction writers for years. And the season we do have forms a relatively complete arc. It was a brief run Invasion had, but it was an impressive one.

I'm interested to see where Shaun Cassidy lands next.


Chopped Nuts said...

I don't think the show was doomed by dealing with dark secrets, I think it was doomed by being boring. Like you said, the lead was dull. And almost every week for a while there we saw this conversation, with almost no variation:

Blonde: You tell me what's happening to me!

Sheriff: You have to trust me.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

Ugh. Blogger is being a little bitch.

Anyway. .. third try's the charm.

The show did lose an initial batch of viewers in its first six episodes (when it was moving too slowly for some), eventually settling in to retain about 55% of Lost's lead-in.

Had it kept those numbers, it probably would have been renewed.

But once it was retooled (on the fly no less) to include major plot advancement in EVERY episode, the series began to lose even more viewers. Two theories: 1.) People didn't like where the story was going or 2.) Missing one episode meant you couldn't catch up.

And that's what sunk the series to such low ratings that it was canceled.