Friday, September 30, 2005

TV Review: Surface

The new television season rounds up its second week and I've been keeping an eye on a few of the new shows.

Surface is one of three new Lost wannabes that tries to play off the same "unknown mysterious menace" territory that studio execs think explains Lost's enormous appeal (more on this in a subsequent post). In true Hollywood fashion, all three major networks are desperately trying to latch onto Lost's success, even if they don't fully grasp what it is that made Lost succeed. The result is an interesting look at the approach and sensibilities of each network.

It's terribly confusing to watch three brand new shows all dealing with a mysterious menace of some sort. They are: Surface, Threshold, and the aptly-named Invasion.

Surface is NBC's offering. It is also the worst of the three. However it does have the second-best title since this show's evil creatures are deep sea dwellers and "Surface" helps us remember this fact (unlike "Threshold").

None of the characters are interesting. And the ensemble is just wide enough to make sure that no one character gets the opportunity to become interesting.

There's the slightly off-kilter, sexy but kind of geeky Lake Bell (that's the actress's name, not a place) playing an oceanographer with a young son. The son is completely token and her scenes with him fail to endear her much to the audience. She loses her research grant and is essentially unemployed. Boo-hoo. We know this is an evil creature invasion drama, so we don't much care about her research grant anyway. Besides these are just facts about a person. They don't make for a character.

Bell's appeal is in her wide-eyed, youthful quirkiness - not dissimilar to Amanda Peet. But Peet has the wisdom to stick to comedies where it can be put to good use. In a serious drama Bell just seems depressed and reigned in.

Moving on. There's the not-quite-a-hick guy whose brother was killed by one of the beasites and wants revenge. Boo-hoo. More facts and setup. Still no character.

There's the government scientist in the expensive high-tech lab where they're studying the beasties. Oh yeah, he has a foreign accent. Guess what? He wears glasses too. Lame.

There's the rich suburban kid who found a beastie egg and is raising the hatchling as a pet. This at least is interesting - he thinks it's an iguana - but all his antics just make you wait for the kid or his friend to get eaten.

The evil creatures themselves look like seagoing dragons. They also look like low budget computer-generated pixels (I'm watching the HDTV offering, perhaps it looks better on a regular TV over rabbit-ear antennae). It's just hard to be menaced by something that looks less photo-realistic than Shrek (especially when 100% of the scene is digital, not just the beastie).

It's also difficult to build much of a mystery about sea dragons. They're not some super-intelligent alien race, hell-bent on conquering earth. They're just some big new lizard that will cause problems for us. We're still smarter than them, so even though they can eat a fishing boat in a single gulp, we still have F-16s, GPS, and microwaveable frozen fried chicken.

So the problem where can you go with a setup like this? They've started to imply that the beastie blood has odd effects on people. Okay, if they're wise they'll make this all about the affected people taking over. At least people - turned evil and super-human by beastie blood - can be smarter than big lizards. And more evil. And create lots more problems for our heroes.

Because the alternative - basing a show around fighting off attacks by low budget CGI monsters - is just fruitless.

Weak concept, non-existent characters, no hope.

If NBC wants to save face, I recommend they accelerate the storytelling and immediately make an end-run. Wrap up the story in one season (or less if the ratings are truly sad) and play it off like it was more an extended miniseries than an actual new TV show.


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