Ten Things You Should Know about "Defiance"
Defiance, the SyFy TV sensation that exists mostly as a weekly ad for a video game apparently, premiered on Monday! There are some things you should know.
(This won't be overly detailed; partway through I checked the timestamp and realized this pilot was an hour and 26 minutes, at which point I called Hulu a son of a bitch out loud in a room by myself, so that's pretty much how this is going.)
1. First of all, if you don't have time for ten things, Graham Greene's face sort of gets it in one.
2. If you do have more time, let's knock out some things: Video games can be amazing narratives. TV shows can be amazing narratives. I do not think they are necessarily the same kind of narrative, nor do I think they tend to benefit from forced, ongoing synergy. Could it work? Sure! Does it work here? Oh gosh, no.
3. For instance! The pilot, as it was presented, was a colonialist fable in which Earth has been usurped by an alien coalition of several races and terraformed into Galactic Greenscreen Standard, with Occasional Vancouver. One human town, Defiance (built in the remains of St. Louis), is home to scrappy humans and some colonial alien races, and while the humans have nominal leadership, looks like the aliens have major economic, social, technological, and military power. Tensions ensue!
...though we don't see a lot of particular tension except Graham Greene, a First Nations actor (and the only major POC in the cast) playing a human character of similar background, who is the bigot blowhard who irrationally hates the colonist peoples.
4. Turns out, when you go on Wikipedia to check some cast names, there's a lot of backstory that nobody went into! And while you obviously don't want to spend your pilot rattling exposition until everyone falls over (that's Copper), turns out the aliens aren't a colonizing force, they're the remnants of races whose star system died, and the terraforming was an oopsie, and some plot happened with the Pale Wars, and so essentially we are looking at a refugee narrative instead. Now, that could be very interesting, but it means that some of the politics have shifted, and now Graham Greene is just a bigot for the hell of it?
Great, thanks, helpful.
5. Accidental overtones aside, Graham Greene is as deligthful as ever when he gets a line that's anything other than Pilot Episode Bingo, and is one of the acting highlights of the show. The others are character-actor stalwarts Jaime Murray (genre aficionado) and Tony Curran (always gets cast in parts that require gallons of makeup), as a Shakespearan alien couple who seem like they could be wonderful if the writing gave them a chance. Amazing despite the writing is Trenna Keating, who plays Defiance's premiere MD, Doctor Over It. Sadly her makeup precludes a lot of facial expression, but she does everything she can with the lines she's given, even when they are, literally, "If you rush me, we go Boom." Here she is, suggesting bed rest for a patient by pushing on her head until she lies down.
6. The rest of the cast doesn't fare so well. There are two teens in a starcrossed romance that isn't even worth getting into. Julie Benz, as hapless mayor Amanda Rosewater, exists mostly to be a nexus for plot elements, including overtures from our hero, a vortex of anti-charisma whose name I have already forgotten but can be substituted with "Dallas," probably. Dallas gets off a couple of Han-Solo "sweethearts" at her, which seems like a very direct shortcut this show has not earned, particularly because there is zero chemistry there. There's also zero chemistry with brothel owner Kenya, played by Mia Kirshner, though there is a sex scene involving Dallas performing enthusiastic cunnilingus, which I guess is worth some points.
7. Not that our hero is utterly without romantic chemistry – he has some! It's just with the actress playing the adopted daughter only a few years younger than he is.
8. Working hard on this show: the extras. I cannot tell you how much I noticed the enthusiasm of these extras. Partly this was because none of the main narratives held my interest, but partly I really appreciate a set of extras who show up to the set and are like, "Live action slow-motion raving? ON IT."
And these two, mourning a coming battle. It's hard to tell, but they were shoulder-gripping their HEARTS out.
And you want that when you're worldbuilding! Great job, extras. May you recur often and get SAG cards one by one.
9. You also want your world to look great. The scope of the production design is certainly ambitious, with an entire town on the docket. Of course there's supposed to be a mix of slightly American-West-frontier human living conditions amid the schmancy blue alien tech, and I get that; nothing says "pilot of a tight-budget show" like a blank wall for no reason, and I get that, too. You layer your backgrounds. That said, I still laughed out loud when I saw this in the infirmary.
Align our racks of old-timey snake oils? NOT IN THE FUTURE, PAL.
10.And never forget, nothing caps a pilot like someone we briefly met outlining a season-long dastardly plan!
...with someone else, at normal speaking volume...in a public restaurant...that is in the city you are talking about.
Part of me wants to give this pilot the benefit of the doubt. There's space (har har) in the canon for SF westerns (we just haven't hit a good one yet, and no, Firefly does not count); there's space for clunky pilots that introduce a pile of things intended for a slow unravel (look at Babylon 5) ; there's room for uneven adventure/drama/comedy romps with lots of makeup and puppets (look at Farscape)!
On the other hand, even at its silliest (and oh, it got silly), the leads in Farscape had fantastic chemistry; and even as it was still trying to develop a myth out of a pile of vague omens and collarless shirts, Babylon 5 was aware of real-life politics that could be drawn from its SF allegories.
For now, at least, Defiance is lifting the tropes without doing the work; there are hints of the potential under the surface, but with as many drawbacks as we're looking at, maybe you're better off just firing up the game in the meantime, after all.