September 2005

A Fall Season TV Preview
Genre “Invasion” Reaches “Threshold” as Network Schedules “Surface”:

Media Commentary By John Kenneth Muir

John K. Muir's Encyclopedia of Superheroes was picked by NY Public Libraries as a Top Ten Reference Work for 2004/5Last season, ABC’s Lost confounded critics and industry experts by proving to be one of the two biggest hits of the year (alongside Desperate Housewives). The tale of 48 airplane crash survivors trapped on a weird (possibly supernatural...) island, Lost has stoked a renaissance of genre television, a boom the likes of which hasn’t been seen since The X-Files achieved blockbuster status over a decade ago, and spawned such series as American Gothic (1995), Dark Skies (1996), Millennium (1996), Poltergeist: The Legacy (1996), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997), Sleepwalkers (1997), and Prey (1998).

In August’s column, I wrote about the upcoming “re-imagination” of Kolchak: The Night Stalker starring Stuart Townsend and produced by X-Files writer Frank Spotnitz. Also joining the “supernatural roster” is a program from the WB called - surprise - Supernatural. Created by Charlie’s Angels director McG and producer Eric Kripke, this new series stars Jared Padalacki and hunky Dark Angel alum Jensen Ackles as brothers Sam and Dean Winchester.

A kind of “X-Files on the road,” Supernatural features these siblings driving cross-country in their 1969 Chevy Impala, investigating supernatural mysteries while on a mission to discover the strange, malevolent force that killed their mother years earlier. In the new Kolchak, the stalwart reporter is also motivated to find out who killed a family member, in this case, his wife, so already, some similarities in plotting are plain. Supernatural leaps out of the gate early, bowing on September 13, from 9:00 - 10:00 pm. Though this one has a stereotypical WB-style cast (meaning buff, young and extremely good-looking...) It boasts a fine creative pedigree nonetheless. David Nutter, who directed many of The X-Files’ finest episodes (including “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “2Shy,” and “Little Green Men”) is helming the pilot and hopefully will be back for further installments.

Outside the Kolchak/Supernatural Zone, alien invasions appear to be the big attraction this season. I don’t see this so much as a “Lost” domino effect as the fact that many insiders in Hollywood assumed that Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds would be a mega-hit and perhaps even more, a pop-culture touchstone. Of course, that didn’t occur (thanks in part to the Tom Cruise backlash), and the film - though a hit - received mixed reviews and won’t prove nearly as profitable as hoped. The same kind of network thinking generated the Eric Close series Dark Skies in 1996, which followed immediately after the summer of Independence Day. There are - count ‘em - three invasion shows landing on our TV sets this fall, one on each of the majors.

Let’s take them one-at-a-time by air date:

First off is Threshold, on CBS. It airs first on Friday, September 16, and involves a task force lead by beautiful Carla (The Singing Detective) Gugino as Molly Anne Caffrey. She leads her diverse team to a spot in the Atlantic where a crashed alien ship has been found. With her team of experts, which includes Charles (Alien 3) Dutton and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Brent Spiner, Caffrey must determine “the purpose of the landing” and the government response. The series is presented by Paramount, and produced by Brannon Braga the so-called “talent” responsible for so much of Enterprise, which was cancelled last year. His involvement alone gives one grave pause about “Threshold’s” quality.

Still, Blade writer/director David Goyer is at the helm of the pilot, and claims that the aliens in the series represent a sort of “McGuffin” and that the real purpose of the show - like all good science fiction - is to hold up a “mirror” to our society. Let’s hope that mirror doesn’t involve any further faddish and played-out references to September 11, 2001, the metaphor du jour of the disappointing (and mind-numbingly obvious...) new Battlestar Galactica, or as I call it, Abu-Ghraib in Space.

Surface, NBC’s contribution to the alien invasion sweepstakes, is filmed in my state of North Carolina, but set around the globe. This series, premiering September 19, was formerly known as Fathom, and it involves “new sea life” discovered all over the Earth. A naval officer in the South Antarctic Sea, a family in San Diego, and a fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico all begin to investigate this unusual new life form, and discover there may be more to it than meets the eye. The series has already been compared to James Cameron’s 1989 hit, The Abyss, and the writers and directors behind the Surface are the brotherly team of Josh and Jonas Pate, the creators of the short-lived but brilliant cult series of 1999, G vs. E.

Last but not least arrives Invasion on ABC. This program bows Wednesday September 21st, from 10:00 to 11:00 pm, and, frankly, it’s the one I have high hopes for. It was created by American Gothic (1995) auteur Shaun Cassidy, and he’s got a track record of making excellent television, including the short-lived Roman/Early English drama Roar from a few seasons back. This one looks ripped from the headlines too, but fortunately not the exhausted War on Terror/September 11th school of obvious metaphors. Here, a devastating hurricane rips apart quiet Homestead, Flordia, and the town is subsequently quarantined by its sheriff. A Florida park ranger, played by Eddie Cibrian and his new wife, a TV reporter played by Lisa Sheridan, begin to suspect that the violent storm was just actually just a cover for something far more alien conspiracy and invasion.

Invasion is described in press materials as the story of a “blended family” trying to “recover from a devastating hurricane and its aftermath.” Given the horrifying and traumatic events unfolding in Mississippi and in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, I wonder if the network will decide Shaun Cassidy’s latest effort hits too close to home and pre-empt it all together. Let’s hope not, as it sounds like an interesting series.

Chances are, only one of these three alien invasions shows will survive beyond the freshman season, and ahead of time, each seems to have a distinct “up front” advantage. Threshold is led by the best and most well-known cast, starting with beautiful Gugino; Surface has the quirky Pate brothers at the helm, and Invasion’s Shaun Cassidy boasts a notable track record for outstanding conspiracy/creepy TV. Clearly, the rating wars between these three shows will be the battle to watch this season.

The Supernatural vs. Night Stalker war should also make for interesting television, though the history of horror shows since 2000 (Freaky Links, Tru Calling, Haunted...) gives one pause. Likely only one of these survive the 2005-2006 season too.

The last genre war like this (1995 -1997) saw distinct winners (X-Files, Buffy), a bevy of short-lived losers (Dark Skies, Sleepwalkers, Prey, Strange World,) and productions that went on to become beloved and much-mourned cult classics (American Gothic, Millennium). Of this new millennium crowd, Lost is already the established hit, the X-Files of the bunch, so even if the aliens are here, they’re going to have a difficult time staying around for long.

Let the battle begin.

Copyright © 2005 by John Kenneth Muir. All Rights Reserved.