TV: Colony (Season 1)

June 16, 2016

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Not long ago, for Lightspeed, I reviewed The Man in the High Castle and Occupied, two science fiction series that involve countries being taken over by occupying forces. In retrospect, it’s a shame I wasn’t able to fold USA’s Colony into that review, because not only is it a perfect thematic fit, it does everything those two shows do, but better.

Taking place in a chilling near future, Colony depicts an Earth that’s been conquered and subjugated by a mysterious alien race. Few have seen the aliens, but their advanced technology is ubiquitous. Now, in the wake of a devastating invasion, they rule humanity with an iron fist, primarily through a hierarchy of human collaborators, who do their bidding in exchange for increased access to scarce goods and luxuries. The aliens, known as the “Raps,” have organized the surviving humans into strictly policed blocs, marking borders with enormous walls of weird alien tech. The collaborating Authority in each bloc is tasked with keeping law and order—and keeping the rabble in their place.

The show follows a married couple in the Los Angeles bloc, the Bowmans. Will (Josh Holloway) is a run-of-the-mill mechanic, and his wife Katie (Sarah Wayne Callies) is a former pub owner. Both are opposed to the new alien regime, which separated them from one of their three children, who is thought to be in the neighboring Santa Monica bloc. While they resent the human collaborators, they’re putting their family first and staying above the fray. But their neutrality is challenged when Will’s secret— that he used to be an FBI agent who specialized in tracking down fugitives—reaches the ears of the scheming proxy who runs the bloc, Alan Snyder (Peter Jacobson). Snyder pressures Will into working for him, promising a deal: if Will helps shut down the troublesome resistance cells within his bloc, Snyder will work to reunite him with his missing son. Reluctantly, Will takes the deal, not realizing that Katie is a full-fledged member of the very resistance cell he’s targeting…and that his access to privileged information has made her an important resource to her fellow rebels.

Like The Man in the High Castle and Occupied, Colony is science fiction as political metaphor, exploring what seems to be a mounting fear in modern western society: the fear of occupation and subjugation by a foreign power. But Colony is far more interesting than High Castle, and its narrative is considerably more energetic and well structured than Occupied’s. Thanks to perfectly clocked writing and nuanced performances from Holloway and Callies, the show does a superb job of rendering sympathetic both sides of a thorny argument: how far is too far to go in the name of your ideals? Will’s pragmatism and compromise, as he works to limit violence within the bloc and rescue his son, is thoroughly understandable, but so is Katie’s disgust with the officious powers that be, and her drive to tear them down. Cleverly, the ugly new reality the alien invasion has caused is actually a scary, exaggerated extension of the society we all live in now: one where a privileged elite live above it all (literally, here, in the “Green Zone” mountains north of LA), enjoying enormous power and wealth, while a huge, barely subsisting rabble lives under the thumb of a violent, oppressive police state. If you remove the alien element, the dark scenario is a chilling reflection of the present, commenting shrewdly on the ugly inequities of our system. Do you throw in with the collaborators to protect your own, or roll the dice on resisting, and try to bring the oppressive system down? Those questions, to a less extreme degree, largely frame much of our present political debate; Colony takes them to the next level and explores them with intelligence argument.

In terms of production, Colony leverages a modest budget to exceptional effect, transforming its Los Angeles locations into a desolate, underpopulated war zone. Massive walls surround each bloc, shattered buildings blight the horizon, and deadly, frightening alien drones patrol the skies; great visual and sound effects go a long way to transform the footage and sell the future worldbuilding. But the true success of the show stems from strong writing and acting. Holloway continues to display his action hero chops, while Callies is exceptional as an increasingly committed, and yet conflicted, rebel. Both characters are faced with difficult decisions, tricky scenes where they’re forced to play both sides, and both actors do a terrific job enacting those internal struggles, words clashing with motives. There’s outstanding support, particularly from Jacobson, whose shifty villainy gradually reveals layers of complexity, and Carl Weathers, as Will’s lazy, likable partner Beau.

I do have some reservations about Colony. There’s a creeping, subtle subplot involving religion that raises red flags that a Lost– or Battlestar Galactica-style narrative implosion might be possible. (One of Colony’s creators is Lost scribe Carlton Cuse.) The show also makes troubling decisions about which characters to kill off, when. Also, shows that rely this heavily on worldbuilding mythology can often lose their magic when more information comes to light—or lose their momentum when their stories are artificially extended. But so far, these potential pitfalls haven’t yet materialized, and this first season is a nicely clocked, gripping entertainment, successful both as thought-provoking science fiction and taut, suspenseful spy thriller.