Television,  TV/Film Reviews

Why You Should be Excited for Colony

Colony returns May 2nd and I’m here to tell you it’s worth your attention. After a debut season that left me feeling a little underwhelmed, the series found its sweet spot over the course of season two and is moving in a promising direction.

(Caution – This article contains major spoilers for Colony Seasons 1 and 2)

Debuting in early 2016, the USA Network’s newest Sci-Fi drama offered a lot to be excited about. There was a near-future dystopian setting, a recognizable world that’s come under the occupation of a shadowy alien force, deep mysteries to unravel, and Carlton Cuse at the helm (Lost, Bates Motel, The Strain).

Will and Katie Bowman
Will and Katie Bowman are not your average L.A. couple.

Season one introduces the Bowmans. Will (Josh Holloway) and wife Katie (Sarah Wayne Callies) are the distractingly attractive and well-accessorized characters at the center of the drama. We first meet the couple nearly a year after things have already gone south for the inhabitants of Los Angeles. Not terribly unlike another post-invasion drama, Falling Skies, humanity has been soundly defeated by a technologically superior force and is now living under a tightly controlled occupation. The survivors of the off-screen invasion known as The Arrival have been cordoned off into city-sized blocs, isolated and cut-off from other regions by a massive, gleaming metallic wall patrolled by swarms of highly advanced, lethal drones. Aside from the aliens and technology, the inspiration drawn from occupied Europe of the early 1940’s is unmistakable.

Will and Katie are obsessed with keeping their family safe but end up going about the task in very different ways. Will, after a failed attempt to cross over to Santa Monica to search for missing middle-kid Charlie, is roped into working for the Occupation by the L.A. Bloc’s local Proxy leader, Alan Snyder (Peter Jacobson). On the other side of the spectrum, Katie is secretly knee-deep in the local resistance group. She’s been taken under the wing of a man by the name of Broussard (Tory Kittles) whose leader is eager to leverage Will’s new gig as a source of intel.

A lot of Colony’s first season is devoted to the slow burn of conflict between Will and Katie. But just as central and quite a bit more interesting is the conflict between those who resist and those who collaborate. At times, the political and social commentary is a bit clumsy. But, overall, it’s an effective, thought-provoking premise. Still, I came away from the first season wanting more.

Colony has all the trappings of a great Sci-Fi drama. However, there are times when the show aims for subversive but instead delivers tedium. Pacing is a bit of an issue but so is the worldbuilding. Katie, Will and the others are entirely too composed for people who have been living under the weight of an oppressive occupation. We need to see more day-to-day suffering to really believe their plight is dire and keep up our suspension of disbelief.

In fact, Colony’s producers didn’t have to look farther for inspiration than another of the network’s stand-out shows, Mr. Robot. In many ways, Elliot’s contemporary NYC feels more dystopian and bleak than the conquered world Colony’s shooting for. Maybe Los Angeles was part of the problem. Palm trees and perpetually sunny skies don’t naturally make for a world that’s supposed to feel broken and hopeless.

Katie and Broussard
Katie’s perma-surprised expression is unflinching.

Season two of Colony is a major step forward. Where season one occasionally felt disjointed and contrived, season two is tight and cohesive. There’s a greater focus on the journeys of the key characters, plotting their arcs with authentic, compelling style. Another of Cuse’s recent projects, The Strain, started off strong before turning into a meandering, dull mess. Thankfully, that’s not where Colony is heading.

Estranged from the Resistance that defined her during season one, Katie has surrendered much of her initiative. With Will on the other side of the wall and eldest son Bram (Alex Neustaedter) trapped in a labor camp, she’s left with few good options. And then there are the compromises she’s forced to accept. Much of the season sees her reliant on her sister, Maddie (Amanda Righetti), who’s secured a privileged (but tenuous) spot in the Green Zone with the L.A. Bloc elites. Worse still, Katie is forced to endure the systematic brainwashing of her daughter at the hands of a government-assigned religious zealot, insufferably cheerful Lindsey (Erin Way). It all works out in the end, but these are still bitter pills to swallow.

It’s not much better for Will. He makes it home with middle-kid Charlie, but the escape from Santa Monica came at a significant cost. The rage-driven killing spree he unleashes on Charlie’s neighborhood gang leaders is the start of a darker path. Back at the Homeworld Security office, he finds there’s been a major housecleaning that’s swept away all of Will’s rational co-workers, including quasi-ally Jennifer (Kathleen Rose Perkins) and old boss Phyllis (Kathy Baker). Instead, he’s greeted by Occupation hardliners who have zero time for trivial requests like “how do I log on to the network?” New-partner Bob Burke (Toby Huss) is not a man who’s impressed by the signature Holloway charm. Not one bit. Bob’s a true believer and a big fan of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Colony really hits its stride when it begins to reveal the breadth of the Occupation and the mechanisms behind the Transitional Authority. There’s some serious Orwellian influence going on when the curtain is pulled back, offering a glimpse into the secret surveillance room in Homeland Security’s basement. Rows and rows of dead-eyed analysts are seated at computers, dutifully monitoring the L.A. Bloc, while they themselves remain under the watchful eyes of the ubiquitous Redhats. The scene’s not quite as haunting as something out of V for Vendetta but the point’s still effectively driven home–This is an unforgiving police state reminiscent of Cold War-era East Germany.

Broussard and Will
Broussard and Will make for reluctant allies.

Broussard’s Resistance has fallen on hard times. They still have the alien gauntlet, at least at the start, but their numbers have taken a major hit. Essentially, they’re little more than Broussard and a few surviving eggheads hiding out in an extraordinarily well-equipped sewer. But they’re also no longer alone in resisting the Occupation. A new, far more ruthless group known as The Red Hand has entered the fray.

The Red Hand, led by Karen Brun (Laura Innes), employ terror tactics unapologetically and with little regard for collateral damage. For Karen, there is no room for compromise and no distinction between Redhat or collaborating elite. These are some fairly obvious World War II-era French Resistance themes Colony is wielding but it’s effective all the same.

After Will gets with the program and joins Broussard the stakes get even higher. Desperate to reclaim the stolen alien tech, Will, Katie, Broussard, and the others agree on a risky plan of attack against The Red Hand headquarters. The thrilling gun battle that ensues during the season’s penultimate episode is a technically outstanding scene and the high-water mark for the series.

Over the course of thirteen episodes, the scope of the Occupation and the role of the Global Authority also begins to come into focus. It’s made devastatingly clear that the GA serves the Hosts’ agenda above all else when the L.A. Bloc comes within a hair’s breadth of “total rendition.” But it’s plain Governor-General Helena Goodwin (Ally Walker) can only stave off that threat for so long.

The purpose of The Factory becomes more evident as well, even if the reveal isn’t terribly surprising. There’s a systematic purging of the L.A. Bloc underway, a methodical draining of the population down to zero. What’s still left unclear is the purpose. The resettlement to the San Fernando Bloc is a sham, but why keep a community alive for so long if only to eliminate it in the end? And what’s with the people being loaded into capsules and launched into space, breathing green alien goo? It’s a reveal for another day.

The resistance group
There are a lot more questions than answers in this case.

Colony’s second season raises more questions than it answers. The finale’s opening scene gives us our closest view yet of the alien Hosts, revealing that there’s nothing organic underneath those space suits. It’s the glowy orb core transplanted from one RAP body to another that’s the critical element enabling the Hosts to remain sentient and aware. Noa (Meta Golding), our ill-fated resistance fighter from beyond the wall, has something just as big to offer. When Will and the others press her for a reason to trust her, she reveals that her group has a RAP defector in their midst. It’s a massive bombshell which mainly serves to open up a whole slew of new mysteries to tackle in the future.

By the second season’s end, the show’s creators have punted the juiciest potential reveals well downfield. Cuse clearly has some of his signature twists planned as the story progresses. That’s likely to be great fun as well as maddeningly frustrating. But as long as Colony continues to deliver compelling paths for its characters to chart, I can live with the producers drawing out the greater mystery.

Colony is at its best when it keeps the focus on characters faced with difficult choices. That’s often the secret sauce of any great story, no matter what the genre. We don’t have to like the choices these people make, but there’s got to be believable reasons for their actions. There have to be consequences too, elevating tension and generating suspense. Season two works so well because it largely sticks to this reliable formula.

I’m excited to see where Colony takes us next and think you should be too. The bones of this world are now well-established and the show is poised to take the story deeper, potentially expanding the universe beyond the ruins of Los Angeles. I really liked the concept of keeping these characters contained in the Bloc, forced to deal with a limited understanding of the greater forces at play. But it looks like that phase of the story might be at an end. The Bowmans are in the wind by season’s end with Snyder in tow. I don’t know how far they’ll get before they hit the next obstacle, but Colony’s fundamental question will still surely be a factor–Collaborate or resist? The answer is bound to prove more complicated than it might seem.

A few things I’m hoping to see next season:

  • A miraculous return for Jennifer. I really want to believe she somehow survived her grief, the pills, and, probably, The Factory. I doubt we’ll see her again, but if someone from Will’s old office gang is going to show up in season three, I’d prefer it be her.
  • A good reason to not totally despise Bob. The guy was a real buzzkill for Will during the second season and didn’t seem to serve much of a purpose beyond menacing poor Jennifer and stoking the audience’s anger. After a short hospital scene devoted to Bob alongside his family, it seems the show hasn’t quite finished with his story. But we’ll need more than a showcase of his singing talent to prove he’s not completely irredeemable. Game of Thrones is the master of giving us sympathetic villains on the small screen. I’m not sure Colony can pull that off effectively so let’s hope there’s a reasonably compelling backstory to justify Bob’s survival.
  • A Broussard and Maddie team-up! Things were looking bleak for both these central characters at the end of season two. Nevertheless, I’d be shocked if they’re not back and I am 100% here for whatever absurd scenario the writers can concoct to bring them together. Colony needs Bro-Mad.
  • Bram quits moping. The Bowman’s eldest son remained cagey about things he did in the labor camp and in the service of Karen’s resistance. When Will and Katie come to him for intel on The Red Hand, he hesitates, saying he doesn’t know how to contact the extremist group. It’s a subtle but effective scene that sees Will calmly tell his son, “I don’t believe you.” But Bram’s folks weren’t doing him any favors either by keeping him in the dark. This is the harsh world he has to survive and continue to grow up in. It’d be nice to see the character move in some interesting directions, beyond being a built-in babysitter for his younger siblings.
  • Status of the Bowman family dog. After faithfully serving as a convenient excuse for Will and Katie to get out of their bugged house and talk shop, the pooch hasn’t been seen since The Red Hand attack that killed Lindsey. Maybe Broussard and Maddie can swing by for one more last-minute rescue.