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Canned TV Show #14: Invasion

August 4, 2010 Leave a comment

“People have been acting weird since the hurricane.”

That simple line just may be the most important phrase uttered in the ABC sci fi drama Invasion, cancelled after one season and today’s Canned subject.  It just about pares down the plot of the whole series to its essence.

But you probably want more detail, don’t you?  Very well, you’ll get it, but be warned; it’s hard to talk too in-depth about this show without getting too spoiler-y, but I will try my best.

Invasion tells the story of the residents of Homestead, Florida, a small town in the Everglades, which is hit by a hurricane in the very first episode.  Only something is strange about this hurricane: people have reported seeing strange orange lights in the water, and an Air Force helicopter is knocked out of the sky by a cascade of orange globs.  But I’m getting ahead of myself, more on that in a moment.

The story revolves mostly around a particular group of interconnected Homestead residents.  There’s hunky park ranger/Jon Hamm look-alike contestant Russell (Eddie Cibiran), who lives with his pregnant wife Larkin (Lisa Sheridan), who is also a local news anchor, and her brother Dave (Tyler Labine).  Russell also shares custody of his kids Jesse (Evan Peters) and Rose (Ariel Gade) with his ex-wife Mariel (Kari Matchett), a local doctor.  Mariel is married to sheriff Tom Underlay (the great character actor William Fitchner), who has a daughter of his own named Kira (Alexis Dziena), and enjoys playing the “you’re a worse parent than I am” game with her ex-husband.  Other various residents of the town factor into the plot over the course of the season, but they comprise the main group with whom we spend most of our time.

So anyway, there’s this hurricane, right?  And it ravages the town, knocking out phones, electricity, running water, and causing mass destruction.  One other curious after effect: some people who survived the hurricane are now not acting quite like themselves.  Certain folks who spent the night of the hurricane exposed to the elements seem somehow different–including Mariel (gasp!)–though at first nobody can put their finger on it.  That is, except Dave, the resident crazy of the town, who is convinced after finding the skeleton of a man with strange things surrounding it, that the strangeness can be attributed to the work of EBEs, or extraterrestrial biological entities.  Initially Russell doesn’t agree with Dave’s theories, which he documents in a blog (ah the blogoshpere, where all the crazies come to share their views), but even he can’t shake the feeling that what’s going on is outside the realm of logic.

So that’s the initial setup, and it only gets crazier from there.  For one, Tom seems to know more about what’s going on than he initially lets on, which is made all the more mysterious by the fact that he himself was the sole survivor of a plane crash from which he emerged without a scrape.  Could he be “changed” in a similar way to the hurricane surivors?  As Russell and Dave try to uncover the truth, they uncover more and more mystery.  Has this sort of phenomenon happened before?  Does the military know, and is trying to cover it up?  Just what is Tom’s role in all this, anyway?  All questions that you should watch the show to uncover (trust me, it’s well worth it).

For a show about an alien invasion, Invasion definitely takes its time parceling out information.  While the audience is pretty much certain that the “lights” in the water are actually weird orange fish-aliens that are the cause of all the changes, it isn’t until almost halfway through the season that we really know all that much about what’s really going on.  It’s kind of like a long-form mystery, getting twistier and more dense as it goes.  Some people might find it frustrating, but I think it’s an effective way to tell a story over the course of a season.  This is a difficult type of show for a studio to get behind, given that it requires that its viewers will tune in week after week to find out what’s going on, and will have to have seen all the previous episodes to know exactly what’s happening.  Sometimes, as in this case or the case of another ABC show that seemed to work pretty well, Lost, it can be worth it.  Other times, it can be too much of a pain to keep up.

Speaking of Lost, ABC has really tried their darndest to find a replacement series that shares that same sort of storytelling; namely one filled with dense mythology and twisty plots that often don’t resolve itself for a long time.  So far, they haven’t had much luck (see Flashforward for proof).  But Invasion feels as close to a worthy Lost successor as ABC has been able to greenlight.  This is somewhat ironic, given that Invasion premiered as Lost started its second season.  Hardly time to worry about a replacement already, right?  It makes me wonder if Invasion would have done better if it came out closer to Lost’s conclusion.  To me, it seems like a dead ringer to take up the Lost mantle.  Its plot requires careful, repeated viewing, and it expects that its audience hasn’t missed an episode.  However, I think Invasion’s plot is more linear; almost like a really long movie.

But don’t get me wrong, the show’s not without its problems.  Some of the acting is pretty hokey, and it’s clear that the writers don’t really know how to write dialogue for anyone under the age of 25 that sounds very natural.  Some of the young actors, particularly Peters, give it their all, but others are just distracting.  Also, some of the episode’s payoffs aren’t as exciting or revealing as they should be.  But for the most part, it’s a well-conceived, well-written show with some good performances, particularly from Fitchner, who rarely gets a lead role like this to flex his acting muscles.  There’s also some memorable guest spots, including a creepy turn from Mad Men‘s Elizabeth Moss as the psycho half-alien bitch from hell, and from Rocky Carroll as a mysterious man named Healy who has information about this alien epidemic, as he lived through one already.

Here’s some clips of Moss’ character being creepy:

So what stopped Invasion from becoming another hit for ABC?  Besides the usual culprit of poor ratings, Invasion had the misfortune to come out around the time that an acutal, non alien-containing hurricane called Katrina ravaged the New Orleans region.  This made some of the show’s marketing material very touchy, as it showed the aftermath of a hurricane.  To compensate, ABC shifted its advertising completely to the invasion aspect of the show, which may have been a little misleading, given how slowly the show gets into its main conflict.  ABC put the show on hiatus twice without airing repeats, which may have caused viewers to lose interest, and caused new viewers to be more confused than riveted.  I admit, it’s not a show you can jump into halfway through, but it’s definitely worth taking the time to watch.

A good chunk of this cast I had never seen before or since, but some have gone on to future success post-Invasion. Labine appeared in the possible future Canned subject Reaper, also killed after two seasons, and starred alongside fellow Canned alum Alan Tudyk (from Firefly) in the upcoming hillbilly slasher parody Tucker and Dale Versus Evil, which looks pretty hilarious.  Dziena has been in a bunch of stuff, including Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and the recent crappy rom-com When in Rome.  Fitchner continues working, as he should, because he’s awesome.  Peters played one of Dave Lizewski’s dumb buddies in Kick-Ass recently.  I haven’t seen much of Matchett, Sheridan, or some of the others, but then again I haven’t really been looking.  I hope they all get plenty of work though; they all deserve it.

So, should it be back on the air? definitely.  It’s the kind of show that isn’t on TV much these days, namely one that challenges the viewer and is intriguing enough to keep coming back.  Perhaps a TV movie could be made to tie up the loose ends, though it’s unlikely, given that she show’s been off the air for five years and everyone’s pretty much moved on.  But hey, stranger things have happened right?  Get on it, Shawn Cassidy.

Tune in next time when I’ll be reviewing the short-lived comedy Testees!  Oh boy, this is gonna be rough.

Canned TV Show #13: Better Off Ted

June 25, 2010 3 comments

So I know last time I said I was going to do a post on the 2005 ABC drama Invasion, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being a Weird Orange Fish Alien, and trust me, it’s coming soon.  In the meantime, however, I thought I’d write up another show I recently fell in love with, only to watch it die a largely unmourned death and slide into the annals of canned TV history.  I’m referring to ABC’s genius sitcom Better Off Ted, one of the sharpest and most entertaining shows of recent years.  My friend and I had an inside joke in which any time he would say the kind of dumb title of the show, I would start a burst of mock uncontrollable laughter.  Stupidly for me, I never actually watched the show to find out that there were plenty of genuine laughs to be had.  Then I signed up for Netflix, and found myself watching four or five high-quality, gloriously legal episodes through their watch instantly feature.  Why do I always get into these things too late?

Ted takes place at Veridian Dynamics, a technology company with no clear focus, that instead just makes all sorts of weird stuff for the government and for consumers.  Examples range from a flesh-stripping remote device designed to peel an orange from another room, but is instead used “to peel enemy soldiers from the comfort of the Pentagon,” to lab-grown beef.  At the center of all the silliness is Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington), a seemingly perfect executive who is largely the shows mostly sane center.  Around him are a lovable bunch of workplace compatriots, from his boss, the intimidating, driven Veronica (Portia de Rossi), to product tester/romantic interest Linda (Andrea Anders), to socially-inept scientists Lem and Phil (Malcolm Barrett and Jonathan Slaivin).  While they make up the core group, there are also a bunch of goofy extra characters to fill in the background (one particularly funny example is a very incompetent scientist named Dr. Bhamba, played by Maz Jobrani).  It’s these characters, and the performers that play them, that make the show so darn enjoyable.  While Ted is a handsome, well-groomed, confident guy who’s good at almost everything (plus he wears impeccably tailored suits), the show does a nice job of exploring some of the neuroses and insecurities behind his veneer.  The same goes for the other characters, who are all varying levels of flawed.  Flawed as they are, they’re all pretty lovable.  My favorite, and probably everyone’s favorite, are Lem and Phil (you really can’t have one without the other), who almost always have some of the funniest lines and moments in a given episode.  Plus, their bickering is priceless.

Pretty much every episode yields at least some good laughs, but I’d have to say there are a few that really stand out as being among some of the funniest half hours or television I’ve seen.  Season one’s “Racial Sensitivity” is one of these, where Veridian installs new motion-sensors throughout the building that use light reflected off the body to detect people, which, as it happens, don’t detect black people.  Lem, of course, suffers from this, and eventually joins forces with some other black employees to go to Veronica and demand a solution.  They also use Phil as the requisite door-opener.  In typical BoT style, the solutions the company comes up with get more and more ridiculous, including hiring minimum-wage white guys to follow around the black employees turning things on for them.  This in turn proves more costly than just putting in the old system, given that in order to avoid discrimination, they need to continue to hire people to follow around those people, and so on and so forth.

Ted doesn’t always attempt corporate satire, but when it does, it’s pretty damn funny.  Probably the episode with the sharpest corporate satire is “Jabberwocky,” in which Ted is forced to come up with a fake project called the Jabberwocky project to cover up for some money he took for Linda’s secret rooftop garden.  Since none of the execs, including Veronica, want to admit they’ve never heard of that project, it spreads like wildfire throughout the company, and soon Ted and Veronica are presenting a project that doesn’t exist to a room full of excited people, which mostly features empty buzzwords and flash.  But don’t take my word for it, watch it!

Plus, most episodes feature a fake Veridian commercial with some theme related to the episode.  For example:

Luckily, ABC was gracious enough to put a bunch of clips of the show up on youtube, so many of these funny little nuggets can be viewed over and over.

So what sank Better Off Ted?  Well, despite having solid critical reception, the show suffered low ratings during its whole run.  So much so that ABC started burning off season 2 episodes pretty quickly, and didn’t even air the final two.  Ted went off the air in January, and was officially cancelled in May.  Recently, ABC tantalized fans with the possibility that they might air the final two episodes if the NBA playoffs didn’t need to go to a seventh game.  Unfortunately for those fans, it did go to a seventh game, and ABC so far has not announced when they’ll air the last two.  My guess?  They’ll wait for season 2 to come out on DVD, and make a big schpiel about “two never-before-seen episodes!” or something like that.  Its cancellation was recent enough that maybe a strong enough fan response could get it back on, but somehow I doubt it.  Add it to the list of great shows cancelled too soon.

So, should it be back on the air? duh, generic question I ask at the end of every post.  Ted is the kind of fast-moving, heavily quotable and silly sitcom we don’t see very much anymore.  Sure, it had shades of The Office and Arrested Development, but it was original enough to stand on its own.  While it may not be the most organic type of comedy, it was usually pretty sidesplitting and definitely worth watching on a weekly basis.

To send us out, here’s some more Lem and Phil hilarity for you:

So tune in next time when I promise I’ll be doing Invasion!  Thanks for putting up with my tardiness.