The show: Terra Nova, Mondays on Fox
The premise in ten words or less? Family travels back to live in dinosaur times.
Any good? Yesterday I discussed Prime Suspect, a cop procedural that wrung water from the stone of its ultra-generic premise via strong acting and filmmaking. And today we examine the opposite: Terra Nova, a show with a unique, exciting premise and loads of potential that finds itself held back by shaky, lukewarm execution.
But we'll start positive, and the positive lies first and foremost in the show's setting and story. I mean, traveling back to live with the dinosaurs! That's just cool! I should mention that the characters in Terra Nova don't accidentally fall through a time rift and get stuck – this isn't Lost – but make the deliberate choice to journey back and escape the polluted semi-apocalyptic future of the 22nd century. In and around Terra Nova (the village they live in), in addition to dinosaurs both friendly and hungry, they find hostile tribes, sabotage, moles, mysteries, sonic boom guns, and plenty of other potentially neat concepts.
The problem lies not in the "dinosaur times" part of the premise but in the "family" part. Not that I have anything against families on television – hell, I watch NBC's Parenthood, which is a family show distilled down to nothing but family – but the central five-person unit here, the Shannons, range from blandly inoffensive to flat-out annoying. In all fairness, it's really only the rebellious teenage son Josh that annoys, but geez, what a grating character, made worse by his equally grating teenage posse. The cop husband, doctor wife, teenage daughter and five-year-old daughter fall more on the bland, "who gives a shit?" end of the spectrum, but they're all the main characters, so it's a pretty big problem.
Thankfully, Stephen Lang (or, as most viewers will refer to him as until they learn his character's name, "Avatar Guy") lends gravitas and badassery as the leader of Terra Nova. His presence is the only thing holding the show back from acting apocalypse, but is also problematic in that it'll make most viewers wish he was the main character.
At somewhere approaching $20 million, Terra Nova's 86-minute pilot is one of the most expensive produced in the history of television (future episodes are going to clock in at around $4 million apiece), and it shows in impressive sets, vistas, vehicles, and a nice grungy look in the 22nd century scenes leading off the episode. But $20 million, while huge for TV, would still be considered microbudget for an action sci-fi film of the same length, and the dinosaurs, while infinitely better than any CGI creatures you'd see on TV a decade ago, just aren't quite there yet.
There are many CGI elements that can be done justice with TV money. Spaceships, for one: I never questioned any of what I saw on Battlestar Galactica or Firefly, the latter of which is getting on a decade old. Castles and other giant structures, as seen on Game of Thrones. Robots, vehicles, distant shots of CGI cities. Basically anything that isn't supposed to be an organic, living thing can be pulled off on TV given restraint and talented artistry.
But making things that are supposed to be flesh and blood truly look like they're sharing the frame with the actors (especially in lengthy shots in broad daylight, as this show attempts) is a million times harder. Even big budget feature films like I Am Legend screw it up. And the dinosaurs on Terra Nova, while good for TV, never quite break free from looking like refugees from a CGI animated film hanging out in live action ala Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
I'm interested in what Terra Nova is attempting to do, and I could see the show getting pretty good if they enrich the mythology, have a well-structured season arc, make the action scenes more visceral and less cartoony, and have three or four of the Shannons die in a tragic dinosaur attack. (Sadly, at least one of those things has little chance of happening.) But whether the show pulls a Spartacus (gets better and better with each episode) or a The Event (spins perilously and quickly off the rails), this pilot, while not a failure, won't be remembered as a great one.
Will I watch again? There's nothing else quite like it on TV right now, so yes. I just hope I don't live to regret it.