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Return of the Living Series: Season Premieres

IN RECENT DISCUSSIONS among scholars of speculative fictions, the science fictionalization of contemporary life is a frequent point of reference. No longer confined to a small, recognizable, and generally low-rent neighborhood, images and ideas drawn from sf are central to today’s media landscape. At their best, speculative genres provide compelling metaphors for contemporary experiences of alienation and potent images of what our future might be that both dissuade and inspire. As television comes into its maturity as a medium, its contributions to these meditations merit our attention.

Last week I evaluated the new series that have premièred to date. This week, we discuss developments in returning series.

NBC’s Revolution, a series once ranked among the most highly watched on television, saw its numbers steadily drop over Season 1 and its Season 2 debut dropped even more. Last season concluded the struggle between rebel forces loyal to the US and two new political entities that emerged after electrical power was lost by turning the power back on just long enough to launch nuclear missiles, enabling an exiled US president to return from Guantanamo Bay. Revolution seem to be exploring our new distrust of government in the wake of ongoing wars prompted by 9/11 (as did Moore’s Battlestar Galactica). This season also tries to replicate the success of Lost (2004-2010) with emerging narrative arcs about nanotech fireflies and nature being changed. Creator Eric Kripke had success with the main-character-driven chemistry of Supernatural (2005–), and such emotional investment seems too diffuse in this ensemble series. Audiences have also lost faith in series with evolving mythology since the smug conclusion of Lost.

This season’s revamped environment’s most promising storylines involves the return of exiled US Patriot forces that reorient and continue to explore themes about what new America might be built on the ashes of the old. Although the first episode, “Born in the U.S.A.” short-circuited any tension from last season’s cliffhanger in its opening minutes – yes, the nukes do fall – it seems clear that the brief shot of the exiled president in last season’s conclusion was more sinister than the missile countdown. Flexible opportunist Tom Neville, played by Giancarlo Esposito, who also played the cagey Gustavo Fring on Breaking Bad, coldly sees through the Patriot’s inflationary rhetoric and acerbically punctures the tattered optimism of loyalists as he notes, in this week’s “There Will Be Blood,” that the new order shares nothing with the “Pollyanna, flowers-up-your-ass America” they idolize.

The illuminati seal on Patriot correspondence and the general Western ethos of a world without electricity or electronics allows Revolution to return visually as well as imaginatively to the founding of America. This arc has potential to mine sf’s considerable history examining the heritage and consequences of colonialism and to provide an unromanticized exploration of the American mythos that Richard Slotkin evocatively labeled “regeneration through violence.” There are propitious hints as well that Revolution will take a fresh look at the discourse of the past ten years now that 9/11 fever has begun to wane, perhaps marking a new turn in narrative drama distinct from series of the past decade explored in books such as Stacy Takacs’s Terrorism TV (2012). Neville’s claim that Patriots used the nuke not merely to eliminate their rivals but also to manufacture an image of themselves as “solution” augur well for this theme.

Revolution is trying to be too many things to too many audiences, however, combining this arc with Lost-inspired mysteries and another plot that basically reworked “The Walking Dead season three” at least thus far, with its beleaguered, gated and wholesome townspeople fighting off a predatory tribe lead by a charismatic sociopath, former boys’ school master and uncharged pedophile Titus Andover, played by Matt Ross with all the sinister creepiness he brought to his role as cult leader in Big Love (2006-2011). Revolution has a strong cast and the potential to equal the reinvented Battlestar Galactica in its exploration of political themes, but it remains to be seen how well it can weave together its many threads into a cogent picture.

Syfy’s Haven offers a satisfying example of how to combine unfolding mythology with weekly narrative satisfaction to intrigue rather than alienate viewers. Last year’s offered closures on some of the mysteries as it introduced others. Like many of the successful genre shows – a pattern modeled by many of this season’s new contenders – Haven mixes its otherworldly mysteries with the steady closure of the police procedural, solving each episode’s case as it deepens the mystery of the source of the troubles themselves and Audrey’s (Emily Rose) role in their end. The fact that some mysteries have been answered in a satisfying way, and without the theological dodges that so annoyed fans of Lost and Battlestar Galactica, buys Haven goodwill and thus the leeway to expand its mythology in each season, fans trusting that revelation will both emerge and be consistent with stories and characters in which we have invested time and emotional energy.

This season involves more radical shifts following a Season Three cliffhanger in which both Audrey and Duke (Eric Balflour) disappeared into an other-dimensional space related to the cycle of troubles and Audrey’s pattern of disappearance and return. Duke re-emerges almost instantaneously from his and our point of view, but six months have passed so Haven is a different town. Ongoing mythology seems to dominate over ordinary crime-solving this season, and this roboot neatly sidesteps an issue that has doomed other television, resolving a love triangle, since Audrey forgets her former existence. Like Whedon series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Haven refuses to pit its troubled characters against its “normal” ones, and thus has the potential for nuanced themes about discrimination and stereotypes symbolized via supernatural difference.

CBS’s Person of Interest similarly fell from last year’s ratings, although its similarity to popular procedural drama such as NCIS (2003–) suggests a wide audience base and a strong chance at longevity via established formula. Part secret-agent conspiracy thriller, part origin story of AI, and part meditation upon the realities – and paranoias – of ubiquitous surveillance, Person of Interest has thus far failed to move much beyond a formulaic, episode-of-the-week drama. A new intro voiceover used in the premiere episode, “Liberty,” that offers antagonist Root’s (Angel’s Amy Acker) version of the world, in addition to the established intro by protagonist Harold Finch (Lost’s Michael Emerson), hints that it may venture further now that it’s renewed for a third season. The addition of Sarah Shahi as another former government agent now in hiding – whose cynicism, quickness to resort to violence, and cold pragmatism make Jim Caviezel’s badass John Reese look positively domesticated – is a welcome change.

Person of Interest most clearly aligns with the science fictionalization of everyday life, on its surface indistinct from non-genre political thrillers and procedurals, particularly in an environment in which series such as Bones (2005–) or the various CSI series emphasize forensic detail and scientific paradigms. Premised on the idea that the government secretly operates an information-collating AI, the Machine, created by Finch, to predict and prevent terrorist activities, Person of Interest chronicles our fantasies and fears in an age of widespread social media, online activity, and surveillance. As the intro tells us, the Machine “hears everything” and thus can predict impending violence against individuals as well as against states, but these victims are considered “irrelevant” by government forces. Finch and his team investigate and rescue private individuals whose stories form the episodic backbone of the series.

Although the fantasy that ubiquitous surveillance equals infinite security animates the series’ heroics, from the beginning this vision has chaffed uncomfortably against knowledge of a concomitant loss of privacy, embodied in the fact that the main characters live off the grid. As each episode begins we don’t know if the person identified by the Machine is victim or perpetrator of the crime they set out to prevent, and the series sustains a pleasing complexity of moral vision by rescuing some “victims” who are not remotely admirable people and whom a more black-and-white moral vision would have condemned as deserving targets of poetic justice. This season promises to more fully explore competing ideological visions of our wired world. In “Nothing to Hide” the CEO of a data-gathering company is targeted by both a lawsuit filed on behalf of those whose lives were ruined by his snooping software and by a mysterious collective committed to wresting privacy back from the hands of surveillance entities (that range from “harmless” purchasing-information-bots to identity thieves). In a rare unhappy conclusion to an episode, Finch and crew fail to save this weekly Person of Interest. This season’s larger narrative arc, then, may provoke us to rethink our social media ways as Person of Interest enters more fully into science-fictional territory.

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