"Terra Nova" will go down as one of the biggest misfires in television history. What a waste this expensive Fox show was, not just of money, but of potential.
Still, there's something instructive about the show's first season, which wrapped up Monday night. Dear screenwriting teachers: Use this show when trying to explain to your students what they should not do. Do your bit to ensure that future TV writers and producers don't make the mistakes that "Terra Nova" did again and again.
How could it have all gone so terribly wrong? The show had a dozen executive producers, most of them television veterans, one of them Steven Spielberg. It was filmed at great expense in the gorgeous back country of Australia and it had solid actors like Jason O'Mara and Stephen Lang playing lead roles. Like the rest of the "Terra Nova" colonists, their characters had traveled 85 million years into the past and were residents of a dinosaur-era colony.
Does all of that sound like fairly foolproof recipe for at least moderate success? Ha. Not quite.
The lesson here is, you can take all of those promising ingredients and make an unspeakably bland, gooey dish. The show's first season abjectly failed to capitalize on "Terra Nova's" promise as either a B-grade adventure serial or a back-to-the-land cautionary fable. As I watched "Terra Nova" this fall (and yes, I saw every episode), I actually began to think that the writers were purposefully toying with viewers. The show would occasionally pick up and play around with the more interesting ideas baked into its premise, then quickly back away from those intriguing concepts as if they were radioactive.
The finale held out some hope that the show might make radical changes that could enliven a possible Season 2 (which Fox has not yet ordered). Commander Taylor (Lang), the colony's iron-fisted leader, and Jim Shannon (O'Mara), the disturbingly credulous former cop helping Taylor keep the peace, managed to fight off an invasion by greedy corporate types who wanted to pillage and destroy their pristine new world. Jim sprinted through a series of plot holes straight back to 2149, where he destroyed the link between the show's two time frames.
Good idea, right? Well, maybe, if the show didn't give off strong hints that there's another time fracture somewhere close to the colony, and that other time portal, I'm guessing, would keep the colony stocked with all the modern conveniences if the show gets another season. Also halfway undone is the "death" of Taylor's son, who was shot twice but appeared to have dragged himself off into the woods to plot another day. But that's "Terra Nova" for you -- it constantly gave itself lazy escape hatches rather than attempt anything interesting with its character and story.
The irony is, parts of the "Terra Nova" finale would have made for a pretty good pilot. What would it be like for a citizen of 2149 to be cut off from all the things that made their lives easier? What would it be like to live without tech, bullets and medical supplies in a brutish and unforgiving world? I'd like to watch that show, but "Terra Nova" very clearly did not want to be that show. It wanted to be so unsophisticated and unchallenging that a comatose human could still follow it. (The one reason I was glad I stuck with the show was that it allowed me keep reading my podcast partner Ryan McGee's hilarious and adept weekly "Terra Nova" reviews, one of which was written from the perspective of a dinosaur.)
I understand that Fox is not in the business of making "Breaking Bad" of the Cretaceous Era. That's fine. But "Terra Nova" didn't assume that audiences wanted only a small dose of ambition amid the sturdy genre standbys. The show assumed that audiences wanted no complexity at all, ever. That's not only silly and condescending, but it flies in the face of all evidence.
Exhibit A: "House," in its early years, did not become a hit by assuming its audience was dumb. Even the popcorn-flavored "24" tried hard to be unpredictable and to supply interesting characters, at least in its first five years. And the argument that kids can't follow smartly written adventure fare is a non-starter: My 9-year-old son is a devotee of "Doctor Who," "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter," which are staunchly populist, but full of emotional nuances and thematic richness.
The interesting thing is, audiences of all ages seemed to sense the show's general contempt for them and failed to make the show a hit. In fairness, my son was a "Terra Nova" fan, which is why we watched every episode. But in the interest of full disclosure, he often paused the show to say, "Why are they doing that? That's dumb." (A mid-finale direct quote from my son: "This is so obviously a set-up!") All I could do is say, "I know, son, I know," and pray for some quality dino action. That's what we both signed on for, but the show gave us precious little of even that.
So, assuming "Terra Nova" never comes back, what are the object lessons of this show? Here are just a few of the things "Terra Nova" did wrong:
It never made me care about the Shannon family, or anyone else, for that matter. In last week's episode of the show, Taylor gave the speech that's familiar to any devotee of war films or underdog sports movies: It was the big "We're all in this together" oration designed to get the community fired up about the coming fight with the bad guys. As the camera panned around the faces looking up at Taylor, it was more apparent than ever that "Terra Nova" had done an awful job of creating any sense of community. I barely knew any of these people, except for the Shannon family, and from Day 1 until the end of the finale, spending time with Jim and his wife and kids was as boring as watching paint dry.
It neutralized the violence and danger inherent in the show's premise. Dinosaurs are awesome -- and dangerous, except on "Terra Nova," where they would only be dangerous when the plot required them to be (and 90 percent of the time, you could see the danger coming about a mile away). Characters stood around outside the compound all the time, and when they did so, they appeared to be in little to no danger for the most part. Inside the compound, the Shannons lived in a nice house, had sufficient food, rarely interacted with or faced danger from the local beasties, had access to plentiful weapons and medical technology, and in general, appeared to be kicking back at a Club Med resort. Even when danger did lurk, the show rarely had the gleeful B-movie energy of the occasional dinosaur vs. human scenes. How do you take dinosaurs and Stephen Lang and mostly defang both of those entities? I don't know, but "Terra Nova" frequently managed it.
The emphasis on treacly family moments at the expense of almost everything else was a lead weight that dragged the entire show down. Here's the emblematic memory I will have of "Terra Nova" going forward: Two boring characters exchange wooden dialogue as music that is meant to be heart-stirring plays on the soundtrack, very loudly. It's a bad sign when a soundtrack is continually asked to evoke emotions that a show has in no way earned. And when the gloopy music accompanies a scene of a little girl setting free her pet dino, well, that's just painful. Still, I'd be willing to live with a few schmaltzy scenes like that in exchange for some challenging explorations of what it's like to live in such an odd, dangerous and even glorious environment. But we didn't get those. Instead, we got scenes of teen romance from the middle and older Shannon kids, who managed the feat of becoming less interesting over time.
The dialogue was full of anvils, bricks and other painful objects. The show unsuccessfully tried to paint Taylor's tech-wizard son, Lucas, as a damaged psychopath. On his way to becoming one of the show's mustache-twirling, comically-cliched villains, Lucas favored us with a line of dialogue that noted that he and his father "suffered from a Shakespearean relationship that borders on Greek tragedy." Thanks, "Terra Nova," for bailing on actually depicting the dynamics of that relationship and instead, just hitting us over the head with clunky exposition. Subtlety is overrated, anyway.
The villains were one-dimensional and cartoonish, and the "good guys" were often dumber than a box of rocks. It was hard for me to care much about the final conflict when it appeared to be a conflict between a dictatorial regime led by Taylor and a greedy bunch of invaders headed up by a pack of bad guys. How was the colony organized? Who headed up the legal system? How were decisions made about civilian life? Who made the choices about the colony's defense? A moderately intelligent show would have taught us a lot about the community in the course of answering those complex questions. World building is one of the things sci-fi does best, damn it! Here it was just, "Taylor's in charge of everything, and that's that." Why did everyone just accept his autocratic leadership, which included imprisonment without charge and torture? Because they just did, and that made everyone (including Jim) seem like credulous, unintelligent sheep. In any event, Taylor's foes, the breakaway Sixers, were quickly revealed to be one-dimensional villains who were in league with the bad guys, who, again, were predicable and silly. And you know what? Just about all of the cliches and anvils above would have been tolerable, almost, but…
"Terra Nova" blew its chance to be an enjoyable action-adventure hour. One scene in the finale -- in which a dinosaur chomped some baddies and then chased Jim back through the time portal to the "Terra Nova" colony -- was a whole lot of fun. Even if "Terra Nova" couldn't afford too many scenes like that in every episode -- even muddy CGI costs money -- more sequences like that would have done a fair amount to win this turgid show some good will. If it wasn't going to try to be intelligent or challenging, it could have been a pretty good comic book, full of melodramatic developments and gleeful action. "Terra Nova" couldn't even do that.
You know, genre fare like this can be done well. The first half-dozen years of "Stargate SG-1" got a lot of mileage out of familiar character archetypes, solid acting and a time portal that led to weekly adventures. But "Terra Nova" gave audiences nothing to care about: not the people as individuals, not the colony as a whole, not even the strange world beyond Taylor's claustrophobic compound. At this point, to win me back, the show would have to kill off most of the Shannon family and promise me hand-to-hand combat between Taylor and an extremely angry dinosaur every single week.
Even then? I think I'd leave this show in the past.
Watch Jason O'Mara beg for "Terra Nova" viewers.