Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Defiance disappoints

Defiance. Remember when I was talking about this show and how it might be the show to fill the gap left by Fringe? Remember? Remember how I said that it might have potential? Remember how I said it might be good? Well, I was wrong. Don't believe me? Watch the trailer.

I was so, so, so wrong.

Watching the trailer now, I'm not sure why I thought it would be any good at all. I guess sometimes the desire for some half-way decent Geek TV, the hope for something new and good, something that could maybe even be engrossing and amazing, can overwhelm the more critical aspects of the Nerd-brain. Although, to be fair, the show does have a good enough pedigree to make a little bit of hope not entirely unreasonable. Rockne S. O'Bannon was behind Alien Nation and Farscape, a pair of shows deeply sunk into the Geek, well-known for their imaginative alien world-building and characterizations and for often pushing into new and interesting territories and topics. They were both often surprisingly good, despite their somewhat silly exterior. So the combination of his name, and the history of those two shows in particular, coupled with the hints I gleaned from the trailer above, gave me some hope.

But like I said, turns out it was a false one.

Not that it wasn't a valiant attempt, the show is better than Walking Dead on average. Faint praise, I know, but despite just generally not being very good--and sometimes even eye-rollingly stupid--there are some laudable bits, sometimes even enough to make the show a frustrating viewing experience.

Here's some things that are good:

The intent: In a nutshell, the show is basically shooting for a Casablanca meets Deadwood type of thing, but with Aliens. It concerns a lone frontier town surrounded by wastelands and wild woods, with broken spaceships burning across the sky. Now to me, that's all you need. I think that's an awesome starting point, I'm interested. And if that simple and easily proliferate originality had carried over to the individual episodes, we'd have had ourselves a home run.

But it didn't.

The back story: The idea behind the show is pretty great too. It is both complex and involved, but very simple, which is what makes it so great. An alien armada appears in the skies over Earth one day. They are called the Votan, a mixture of races who have traveled across the infinite vastness of space in search of a new home after their own galaxy was destroyed by a Stellar Collision. They don't plan on taking over the planet or destroying humanity or anything like that, they just want a place to stay and they're hoping to share our space. They're like Cosmic couch-surfers. But us being typically us, we're like: "Uh, yeah, no, we don't really have any space... sorry. Plus, the planet's so dirty and we haven't had any chance to clean for awhile, so..." We don't say No, but we don't say Yes either. It's like Interstellar Minnesota Nice. 

For ten years, we negotiate. 

We allow them a few colonies here and there, but not with anywhere near the amount of space they need and as a result, most of the Votans are left in hypersleep on their ships while we hem and haw and drag our feet. Tensions rise on both sides, nerves fray and eventually a human shoots a Votan Ambassador on the steps of the UN and, well... shit gets real. For the next 10 years, we fight like crazy. The Pale Wars. It's straight-up apocalyptic, yo. During the war, the Votan ships are destroyed in orbit and their Terraforming Engines crash to Earth and go absolutely bugshit haywire. The planet is battered with strange new energies, radically altered by a sudden influx of invasive alien flora and fauna, and when the dust settles, it's a whole new world (don't you dare close your eyes). At that point, both human and Votan alike look up from the rubble, exhausted and nearly wiped out by the fighting, realize they're all stuck with each other, and broker an uneasy truce. The town of Defiance was founded during this time. It used to be called St. Louis. It stands alone, independent from the remaining governments of the world and home to all races. It is the best of us and the worst of us. Like I said: Casablanca meets Deadwood, but with aliens. Interesting, right? It could be cool, right?

Too bad they didn't do anything with it...

Datek and Raff: Datak Tarr is a Castithan crime boss played by Tony Curran. You probably recognize him. He usually plays the Scottish Guy in a ton of different things. Rafe McCawley is the richest and most powerful human in Defiance. He owns the Gulanite Mine, a valuable substance in the show used for I-don't-know-what but looks like Pop-Rocks. He's played by Graham Greene. You should definitely recognize him, as he usually plays the Native American Guy in pretty much every production that has the role available. The two of them play a pair of men who stand on opposite ends of Defiance. Vicious rivals locked in a struggle for power, constantly circling, waiting for the other to show weakness so they can strike. Two men bound together because their children are in love. And they're great. They're usually pretty good in whatever they show up in, but in this they're real bright spots. The effort they put behind the myriad of cornball cheese the various scripts demand, coupled with the... ahem... "limitations" of the rest of the cast, really elevates their performances. Plus, like seemingly all modern sci-fi/fantasy these days, Defiance is really into creating whole, usable alien languages. It's all still complete gibberish, but at least you could have an actual conversation with the stuff, if you had too. Well, according to the show, Tony Curran was one of the few people who actually learned his character's native tongue, instead of just imitating the script, and the result is obvious in his performance. I respect that level of dedication.

Ugh... so dumb...

And finally: Hands down, without a doubt, the best thing about the show is that the first season is finally done. I hope it doesn't come back.

Things that are bad (Or... I hope you've got some free time, cause this is gonna take awhile):

Quit looking at me! God, you are The Worst...

Irissa: Irissa is officially "the Worst" of the show. Absolutely the Worst. She is the adopted daughter of Nolan, the hero of the show. He's human, she is Irathian. The Irathians are one of the Votan races and they kind of look like a cross between Rocky Dennis and Elton John on the muppet show.


Anyway, the Irathians are supposed to be kind of like Bikers meets Spiritual Savages type of characters, quick to anger, dog-like, which means Irisa is the Loose Cannon character--Wolverine basically--but since the writing fluctuates so wildly between meh to not very good to amazingly dumb, she mostly just comes off as completely insane. She's the character who is constantly pulling a knife on people, and for nothing too. This ridiculous hair-trigger temperament, coupled with the fact that she is usually just generally unpleasant when interacting with others (who are all ridiculously patient with her, probably because she's constantly armed), also makes her official Plot Wrecker. Which basically means, whenever there's a plan or something that needs to be done, Irisa is the character who flips outs and attacks someone or runs off or throws a screaming fit and ends up ruining everything. Always. Or she pulls a knife. The writers seem to see this type of thing as the way drama naturally progresses. I don't know why. And yet, despite her blatant insanity, she's a town Deputy, as far as I can tell, it's only because she's Nolan's daughter, who is the Sheriff. It's ridiculous and no one seems to notice. To be fair, though, her knife wielding psychotic fits are maybe the only consistent thing about her character, so there's that. Now, some people might counter with "she's an alien, she's supposed to be odd and/or different, or... y'know... alien." That's crap.

No matter where you're from, if you're constantly pulling a knife on people, no one is going to want to hang out with you. 

Even worse, not only is she written as 10 pounds of nuts in a 5 pound bag, but she's also the Starbuck of the show. She's an expert in everything! For instance, she's supposed to be the character who doesn't belong in either world: an Irathian raised by a human, but neither human nor Irathian, understand? But then any time there's an episode with other Irathians in it, she is suddenly this super-knowledgeable leader among them, speaking the language, knowing the legends, and just striding to the front of the group and leading religious ceremonies, like she's been doing it for years. And then the next episode, she flips out about how she doesn't belong anywhere. It's insane. Also, I almost forgot... Irisa has visions, because why not, which then dives head-long into a completely out-of-nowhere "The One" plot line an episode later, which is really the perfect capper to a bucket already filled to the brim with The Worst. She just overflows with Terrible. Go big or go home, right? Oh, and of course, maybe most annoyingly of all, every shirt she owns is a midriff top.

Every single one.

Plus, the actress who plays her--when her face isn't completely made of stone, she has Matthew Lilliard-mouth, which is gross.

And then there's Kenya...

Kenya: Okay, I lied. Kenya is The Worst. Okay, maybe not the Worst, but she's pretty awful. She is nigh-unwatchable-awful, both in performance and in characterization, and she's in every damn episode despite the fact her character adds zero value. Kenya runs what is called the Need-Want in the town of Defiance, a kind of 7-11/Applebees/whorehouse. Now, right off you'd probably expect her character to be the Al Swearengen of Defiance, a vicious opportunist, pimp, thief, and crooked Black Marketeer who protects the town tooth and nail while simultaneously cornering the market on any business they can... but no, instead she just goes around being very terrible at being sexy and alluring, and nothing else. It's awful. Now, some might counter with: "She can't fill the Swearengen role, that's what Datak Tarr does." Exactly... Exactly. I mean, I'll agree she's maybe she's not The Worst, and that I don't want them to kill her off like I do Irisa, she's definitely not the Lori of the show by any stretch, but what she really is, is the most completely useless.

I assume Nolan is pooping in this picture, lord knows the script probably is...

Nolan: Nolan is the star of the show, which is surprising due to his general lack of charisma or character depth. He starts the show off as what is called an "Ark Hunter" which is someone who loots all the crashed Votan ships and sells the scavenge. He's supposed to be an ex-hero of the Pale Wars who lives out on the fringes hunting his fortune with his adopted nutbag of a daughter Irisa The Worst. They're constantly on the move and they live by their own rules. That's how he and Irisa show up in the town of Defiance in the very first episode. Ten minutes later, he's the Sheriff. Five minutes after that, he's total inner-circle, like he's been there for twenty years. So why make him an outsider in the first place? Why not just start him off in he middle of it all, walk us through the world the same way a show like Game of Thrones does, or Boardwalk Empire does, or the Wire does? Why not? Why not let us pick it all up in context, show us, don't tell us. Be smart instead of cheating with a worn-out New Guy's First Day trope that you can't even fully commit to. It's just so lazy and boring. And Nolan himself, the character is a blank slate, uninteresting, unengaging, a cheap suit made of cliches. He's supposed to be a grizzled rogue, but with a heart, a worn-out old badass who has seen some shit in his day. He's supposed to be jaded, but he just can't pull it off, his gruff and bluster is more of a windy fart and his grit, it's just a sugar coating. And honestly, is it just me or does he wear his pistol really low on his thigh, like too low to reach quickly?

The main seven races... Wait... Is that a ball of light in the lower right hand corner? What the fuck is that thing?

The eight race: The Volge. Guess what... They're mean... I know, I was shocked too.

The Votan Races: Simply put, there's too many with no real reason to be there. I applaud the attempts of trying to be distinct and varied, but the two pictures above basically illustrate how things are. The show pretty much focuses on the Humans, the Castathans (who are basically the "new money" characters in the show with humanity as the "old money"), or the Irathians (when they want to get all spiritual and savage and shit and bounce around all archy and feline-like, as if the last road-crew of Cats were hired as a whole set piece. Me-YEOW...). The Doctor in Defiance is an Indogene, so she has a pretty major part, but that mostly focuses on her dark past and not anything that necessitates her being a separate race. And there's a couple of bartenders and house cleaners that are Liberata, but not many and not often, and I think one of them is dead now... Sometimes they have a line or two. As for the Sensoth, as I was getting ready for the show and watching the Behind-the-Scenes stuff, someone in one of the videos called them the "Chewbacca" of the show, which I guess means they're tall and hairy, because that's all you get from their few background appearances. I don't think I've heard one say a single word. And the Volge? They're the roaring monster. They've only shown up twice. They're maybe the least sketched-out of all the barely sketched-out extra races. Except for maybe that ball of light thing... What the fuck is that? But maybe that thing doesn't count yet, since it wasn't even in the show. Ever. Why is it pictured, if it hasn't even shown up yet? I guess it doesn't matter, because in the end they basically have two races they use a lot, but only really as funny-looking humans, and a handful of others just to clutter up the background with. Who are these aliens? Where did they come from? Do they miss their home? I could actually be interested in their cultures, their marriage ceremonies, I mean, I want to hear about them and whatever Mediterranean or Eastern European pastiche-planet they come from.

I kid... (Not really)

This cast picture is missing like... 37 people.

There's too many characters, but not enough character: Not only are there too many races, there are too many characters, most of whom we don't know anything about and generally do nothing. The only upside is that the writers seemed to have realized this and have written several of them off the show. I mean, I understand, it's a town, it's going to have a large ensemble cast, but make them matter to the story before introducing them and then take the time to make them real characters somehow. Give them something to strive for, to want, or a quirk maybe, anything. The street market set the main characters lumber up and down over and over again every episode? We should "know" the vendors, make them recognizable. Think Chief O'Brian. The butcher stall was seen several times. Who owns it? And forget about the background characters, let's talk about the minor ones. What did the Romeo and Juliet story line get us? What did the ex-mayor story line get us? What about Rafe's runaway son? Or the dead son? Or the junkie barmaid? What did they add to the show? What did we learn about them? What's their arc? Where's their closure? What impact did they have on the story?

What if there are more than two people per Jeep?

The inconsistencies of life: The small details of this world make no sense. See that pic above? Those are Rollers. They're the common vehicle in the world of Defiance. Why? There are a few cars and some regular trucks, but mostly you get the feeling watching the show that everyone now drives a variation of these jeep-like things? Why? I'm sure some numbnut out there will say: "Because of the harsh environment. Besides, the Pale Wars and the accidental Terraforming ruined all the factories." Oh really, then who made the Rollers, and where are they making them, if they're no factories? Who is making the tires? There must be factories, and if so, why not make Hummers? Why go backwards design-wise? In Defiance, the populous lives in stacked Cargo Crates, old Ruins and Shanties for the most part. Why? Someone is out there manufacturing umbrellas, because everyone carries brand new ones in the show. Why would someone make umbrellas but not housing materials? And most egregious of all, scroll up and look at the cast photo again, why would anyone wear a brown jacket with one blue sleeve? It's FUTUREY!!! (Jazz hands)

Here to save you from the Matrix...

The Chosen One: Ugh. Seriously. What a piece of shit, over-used trope.

This is maybe the worst part of the entire show (well, there might be one more thing that's worse). At this point, is there any story line worse than The One? It is so boring and lazy. And worst of all? It's completely unnecessary for this show. I mean, how hacky are you if you can't squeeze a few hours of drama out of Casablanca meets Deadwood, with aliens? Instead, you take the most annoying character on the show (Irisa) and you stick what looks like a gold doorknob and silver doorknob inside her, which is supposed to be some dumb prophecy/ultimate weapon thing... something about a Votan ship that crashed a long time ago on Earth. I don't know. It's useless deus ex machina garbage of the worst variety, mainly because all they're doing is introducing magic into a sci-fi setting. Okay, fine, it's not exactly "magic", it's that more recently popular cheat of the "super-tech that only appears magical because it's so advanced" variety. Sure. Fine. It's still a hacky cheat, because the only reason it's there is to pole vault poorly thought out stories from the tight corners they might get stuck in due to the awful writing. Shit like that basically ruins the show forever. Even if the best writer were to come in and try to salvage the show, hacky magical cheats are a stain so terrible, it never goes away. You can't unwrite shit like that. No matter how they might wrap it up or sideline it somehow, it will always be there, an opened door of crappy possibility, one that can't ever be closed, and whose simple existence undermines all potential drama. Basically, once Superman spins the world backwards and reverses time, why doesn't he just do that shit all the time?


The Video Game: Okay, this is the worst thing about the show and this time I mean it. You see, there's this multi-user on-line video game, kind of like World of Warcraft, that is the companion to the TV show and it is pretty much responsible for every terrible decision. A cornucopia of environments all within walking distance of each other. Sets are designed like video game levels. Scenes like in-game puzzles and big level-ending boss fights. Gunfights happening on streets conveniently cluttered with random crates and boxes to use as cover as if straight out of an FPS's dream. The good news is, I've heard the game is boring, and that players haven't been impressed, so maybe it will die before the second season gets underway and they'll be able to move forward with the show a little more freely, able to ignore the restrictive stupidity the game imposes upon them, but I doubt it. Besides, as far as some of the really bad ideas are concerned, it's too late already. For instance, Defiance sits atop the ruins of St. Louis. Really. Downtown St. Louis is almost intact and underground in a massive cave. So, Defiance is just sitting on a thin layer of rock? I don't even understand how that happens. Did the city sink... and then a wave of rock and dirt crested over it and hardened like Magic Shell? It makes no sense. How did the city stay intact and yet get buried? How do they rationalize that in the story, that's what I really want to know. How was that supposed to have happened? I don't get it. I mean, I understand why they did it: It's there so the video game has an underground city level for the players. Which is lame, right? Totally fucking lame.

No! No, wait, no, I take that back... the actual worst thing about the show has to be the decision to end every single episode with the worst musical montage you've ever seen. I swear to God. Every single episode. Really. It's unbelievable. It's so awful, it's embarrassing. I'm embarrassed for the people involved. It's so terrible. The worst, most bombastic and overwrought musical montages you will ever see. I can't even post a sample video to show you, that's how embarrassingly bad it is.


I know. I know. Some of these complaints probably sound a bit nit-picky to some of you out there. And each one taken on their own, sure, I might agree with you. But all together? In every episode? No, that's when they become damning. Taken together, it adds up to the fact that, in the end, and despite a strong pedigree and a bit of potential, Defiance is disappointing. It tries hard, I guess, but it's just kind of stupid and poorly done. It's not as dull as Revolution or as dumb as Terranova or as blandly saccharine as Falling Skies and nowhere near as bottom-of-the-barrel terrible as Heroes is either, but it definitely belongs on the same shelf, and that is just disappointing.


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