Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Idiot Box: Defiance - 1x02 "Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go" Review

When I reviewed the opening episode of Defiance, I made the perhaps bold claim that it had the potential to be to science fiction television what Game of Thrones is to fantasy television. When I said that, I was specifically referring to the vast amount of very complicated and intricate world building that the HBO show is known for, and that this one clearly seems to be emulating. Other than that, the shows are quite different, and while it remains to be seen whether Defiance lives up to that potential, comparing the level of excitement I feel after watching this week's episodes of both shows is like night and day, coming off of one of the best Thrones installments in the show's short history into a lackluster sophomore effort from Defiance that left me wondering if maybe I'm seeing more than is actually there with this series.

The main story follows the return of Ben, the traitor from the pilot who was left in a coma after he was caught blowing up the force field around the town. He's awoken by the aid to the old lady from Lost and told to go into the mines under the city to do something nefarious, and eventually our law keeper and Graham Greene have to go in to stop him. Right away we find ourselves with a missed opportunity, as our characters delve deeper into what should be a mystery inside a subterranean Old St. Louis, only to waste time cleaning up the mess left by the last episode and settling down for a few incidental character beats. If you're not going to give me something to think about and theorize over, at least give me a giant underground monster den or something. Instead we get a dog food jingle and a literal dead end.

The B plot follows an incidental character from last week, one of the creepy albinos who ran from the Battle of the Volge and after being caught is subjected to a traditional alien ceremony that happens to involve him being tortured to death. Naturally this does not sit well with the residents of the town who dislike lethal torture, with the mayor caught in the middle, struggling with an informal legal understanding of tolerance for alien customs. This bit was a little better, giving us a kind of conflict that you imagine would come up a lot with seven or so alien races sharing the same space, and using it as an opportunity to find out where everyone stands, and to establish a bit more of the town's history. We learn that the reason the mayor is hesitant to stop the ritual stems from a prior incident where compulsory vaccinations led to most of the Irathients leaving after a bloody fight.

I find it to be a general rule for TV shows that if I like the B or C story considerably better than the A story, than that means something is wrong. Its not even that this episode was necessarily bad, just that I already see the thing that I feared would happen starting to rear its ugly head, as a show with so much going for it forgets how much interesting material it has to draw from. The Western structure does not require that we ignore the complex back story of this world in favor of stories that could be told in any other show, and I worry that this might be the first of many bland excursions meant to fill time until the next thing I actually care about. We'll see if next week someone's poisoned the water hole and we have to deal with that manufactured crisis or something like it, rather than anything to do with learning something new and exciting about aliens or conspiracies, or any of the things I actually like about this show.

We end with the reveal of a mysterious piece of technology, or possibly just a lump of gold something or other, and a somber end to the cultural tradition storyline that had previously seemed to end on an optimistic note. I tend not to give letter grades, because I think they are rather arbitrary, but if I was giving them for this series, I'd say this was about a C to C-, not terrible, though hopefully not a sign of the average episode to come. The good stuff is still good, I still like the Castithan's creepy machinations, and the introduction of the even whiter room is a nice visual touch. I still want to know more about this place and the people living in it, especially those weird monkey dudes. I haven't lost all hope, but the skeptic in me knows that one early misstep often leads to another, and especially with a show like this with so many moving parts, its easy for things to unravel without a strong foundation. Here's hoping we get back on the right track next week.

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