Colony episode 1 review: Pilot

Colony is a rich, foreboding new sci-fi series from Lost's Carlton Cuse that recalls the original series of V...

This review contains spoilers.

The very first moments we spend with Colony are with a family at home, witnessing their mundane, strangely uncomfortable morning together. Sure, everything looks fine, but underneath this forced normalcy is a deep emotional tension that bleeds out of every action and movement each family member makes. They’re recovering from a major shock, one that nobody wants to acknowledge, and it pervades throughout their entire Southern Californian household.

The father, Will Bowman, played by Lost’s Josh Holloway, grabs two eggs that sit patiently on the counter. As he prepares to fry them up, he jokes about how they’re baby chickens with his daughter and son. All of a sudden, one of the eggs drops to the floor by accident. Crack. The mustardy yolk oozes out onto the tiles. Will rushes to clean this mess up before his wife, Katie (Sarah Wayne Callies of The Walking Dead fame) can see what happened, telling her it’s all good as she enters the room.

The thing is, she knows he’s lying. She knows that it’s bad, in fact. There’s a runny mess all over the floor. You can’t hide it from those you care about. You can’t just pretend it’s not there. You’ve got to get rid of it or it’ll start spoiling everything. So she hands him a towel to help him clean it up.

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This brief moment is symbolic for Colony, the high-concept new USA sci-fi series that’s produced like an ABC drama. It’s a show about straining to maintain the facade that everything is hunky-dory when it’s not, both on a global scale and a personal one. And that’s not surprising in the least, as this series is a parabolic remake of Germany’s militaristic occupation of Paris during the second World War.

In the preface to his book on the Nazi regime establishing occupancy of France called When Paris Went Dark, author Ronald Rosbottom poses a question that co-creator Carlton Cuse must have taken as a challenge: “Are we capable of imagining and describing the claustrophobic trauma of living in a familiar environment that has suddenly become threatening?”

I’m guessing Cuse read this book for research while developing Colony. It’s a surprisingly educational programme for the basic cable network whose line-up, Mr Robot notwithstanding, consists of WWE Raw and perpetual reruns of Psych, as it ambitiously translates the horrors of colonisation and occupation to those privileged enough never to have personally experienced its effects.

If Cuse and co-creator Ryan J. Condal had chosen to make a period piece set in the early 1940s, it would be just another time capsule that would ultimately distance between the audience and the story’s intent. How better to personalise this societal nightmare to white America than through a photogenic, nuclear caucasian family, living in the suburbs of contemporary Los Angeles?

The cleverest thing about the pilot of Colony is that it doesn’t play out like you would expect a pilot to. It’s more like watching the premiere of the show’s second season by accident. It cleans up the fallout from the climactic events in a first year that we sense was action-packed. In fact, since our entry point is in the middle of the action, we aren’t even formally introduced to our main characters until much later on.

Even so, we actually are introduced to them in the ways that count, defining who they are by showing us the actions they take and cluing us in on their motivations later. This approach stems from the “mystery box” school of storytelling, so even if it disorients us in the process, it’s effective.

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Speaking of which, we should probably talk about that big elephant standing over there, in the corner, across the room. No, wrong side. Over there. Warmer. The one that looks like Matthew Fox. Yes. That one. 

Colony owes a lot to Lost. Not just because they share a leading actor, although that is a big part of it. The truth is, both series are almost identical in presentation and style. The camera-work, the sparse intro, the score, the element of surprise, the perplexity factor, the logo – heck, even the typeface they use during the credits at the bottom of the screen at the beginning. It’s all very Lost-esque to the point of seeming dated, but not unfortunately so.

The production value is simple yet strong enough, but the idea of Lost-style mystery shows like this are so, I don’t know, nine years ago? This is not a complaint against Colony, which is a masterfully constructed experience so far, just an observation that it may be trying to cash in on a fad that was left behind along with the T-Mobile Sidekick and the Top Friends list.

Marketing aside, Colony has high aspirations that might well go over the heads of some casual USA viewers. I think that was the mission here; to get the wheels in America’s heads turning. Colony’s atmosphere is rich, foreboding and surreal. It appears to be the everyday world we function in, but a nightmare clone of it, controlled by unknown forces we can only assume are “aliens.”

By the way, Cuse is adamant that Colony isn’t that kind of show, even if that’s what it’s presented as. As we meet Alan Snyder (Peter Jacobson from House), proxy governor of what’s referred to as the Los Angeles Bloc, we realize that Cuse is right: this is a show about how humanity can, has, and will be its own alien invasion.

Snyder portrays a entertaining villain, in the spirit of lovable bad guys like Mayor in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. His villainous character also happens to be the sole provider of comic relief during this entire poker-faced hour. In that sense, he’s disarming because he’s so human, and so not what we expected. Cuse is proving to us that sometimes the most nefarious forces wear the most innocuous faces, because they’re just human too. What can be the most horrific is how normal something seems, after all.

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One major thought that struck me while watching Colony’s first episode was – this is exactly what that half-assed reboot of V ABC threw up a few years back wished it was (kind of ironic since that featured Elizabeth Mitchell, another Lost alumni, and Sawyer’s ex-girlfriend). This pilot made me feel like I did when I sat down to watch the original from the 1980s, in fact, which was just as tense and relevant then as Colony is today. Because of this, I’m looking forward to seeing Cuse’s paranoid art film experiment turns out, even if there are no lizard women in sight.