In the wake of ABC’s Lost, the show that not only stranded characters on a mysteriously inhabited island but also rescued a lonely network from its own marooned ratings exile, a newfound thirst for post–X-Files otherworldly insinuation has developed in programming land. Hence, CBS has Threshold, NBC has Surface, and ABC doubled up, giving its Wednesday-night Lost viewers a full night of jitters with another creepy series, Invasion.
With the season in full swing now, you may need a little help discerning which of the three new creatures-from-beyond dramas is which: Threshold is the one about an alien invasion that starts at sea. Surface is the one about an alien invasion that starts at sea. Invasion is the one about an alien invasion that starts at sea.
Maybe I should try that again.
Threshold is the one in which a four-dimensional alien signal is first seen/heard/absorbed by Navy seamen in the North Atlantic; the aliens then take the seamen’s jumbled-and-reassembled DNA and try to infect the populace, as if they were running some seriously twisted version of a military recruitment program. Surface is the one that begins with the sudden appearance of a rash of new sea beasts throughout the planet’s oceans, which triggers salivating in a feisty oceanographer, secrecy within the military and nurturing instincts in a young boy with designs on keeping one of the beasts as a cool, if destructive, pet. And Invasion, set in the aftermath of a Florida hurricane, is the one in which thousands of wiggly light forms land in the swamps, and the barely perceptible behavioral modifications in a fractured family just might be connected. Okay, better be connected.
The real differences between the shows, of course, come out in the nuances of the characters that inhabit each series. Threshold’s alien onslaught is portrayed from the perspective of a crack government squad holed up in a tricked-out D.C. bunker, led by unmarried risk specialist Molly Anne Caffrey (Carla Gugino), who becomes “the most important person on the planet” because she’s actually mapped out an official response (called “Threshold”) to incoming E.T.s, and now has to implement it. And while it might have been funny if Molly were a hapless Michael Brown–like political appointee unable to stop the world from ending, she’s not. This is a series about whip-smart heroes, with an outbreak to contain each week, usually involving quick action, rapid analysis and fast wit. (Asked to explain her reasoning that 33 percent of the country’s Internet users could be immediately infected if the alien signal got onto the Web, she quips, “I’m using the Paris Hilton sex tape as my distribution model.”) But Molly’s regular references to having “a plan” sound unintentionally Bush-ian in their rhetorical vagueness: Although the show is information-obsessed, the Threshold strategy hasn’t exactly been explained to us yet. So, if the writers ever have Molly and her CSI-like nerd team of snarky science eggheads — played by Brent Spiner, Rob Benedict and Peter Dinklage — drop the ball in their effort to keep the public immune from the threat and the knowledge of the threat, we’ll know what real-life, make-it-up-as-we-go-along international debacle is on the creators’ minds.
Surface portrays its alien onslaught from the perspective of . . . well, too many disparate people. It seemed as if the pilot episode shifted locations 400 times, from the South Antarctic to San Diego to North Carolina as creators/writers/directors Josh and Jonas Pate set up their Spielbergian encounters with the new, sometimes dangerous, sometimes cute sea denizens. The second episode even dropped anchor in South Africa for one monster scene. When Surface settles down, it lets some nifty scenes play out, especially those surrounding curious young Miles (Carter Jenkins) as he swipes an egg, hatches the monster in his aquarium and tries to domesticate it. And one moment of disaster peril, involving the draining of a Texas lake, was so cool it could elicit an “Awesome!” in anybody. But so far the stern-faced Lake Bell’s independent-minded oceanographer is too conventional a protagonist, while the series’ government cover-up thread — featuring a crafty scientist played by bearded, Croatian-born actor Rade Sherbedgia — feels globally warmed over.
In Invasion, we see the aliens through the eyes of average folk trying to make sense of their disjointed lives. This gives the show a character-driven Lost sheen, but avoids being a copycat. It’s easily the most interesting of the three, taking the emotional chill and confusion that accompany a family divorce — between a sweet-faced park-ranger father (Eddie Cibrian) and a mother who’s a local doctor (Kari Matchett) — and lacing them with a narratively complementary dose of body-snatching paranoia. In the pilot, Mommy vents her anger at Daddy over what she perceives as a disregard for their young daughter Rose’s welfare during the hurricane, but the mood changes after Mommy has been found naked and weirdly unscratched after disappearing in the storm. Now Rose thinks Mommy “smells different,” and Daddy is becoming convinced by his wife’s conspiracy-addled brother that the natural disaster was a cover for a mass visitation. Creator Shaun Cassidy’s way with the kind of queasy human drama that slides niftily into a larger arena of enveloping horror is on fine display here, with none of the ramrod effects or overblown fright cues or pointless fake-tech jargon that can mar other series with designs on freezing your blood. You only need the fabulously sinister William Fichtner (Go, Crash) as Mommy’s new sheriff husband, comforting his alien-altered bride at the end of the first hour with an eerily reassuring, “Baby steps, honey, baby steps,” to know that Invasion intends to work in shades of dread. And it thankfully doesn’t appear likely to play its hand too soon.
INVASION | ABC | Wednesdays, 10 p.m.
SURFACE | NBC | Mondays, 8 p.m.
THRESHOLD | CBS | Fridays, 9 p.m.
The through line of influences for all of this season’s alien dramas goes something like this: Before Threshold and Lost there was The X-Files, which was itself an homage of sorts to the eccentric, short-lived 1974 series Kolchak: The Night Stalker, all 20 episodes of which recently made their way to DVD. (And Kolchak was drawn from two goose-bump classics of made-for-TV moviedom: 1972’s The Night Stalker, about a modern-day vampire, and its follow-up, The Night Strangler.) Carl Kolchak, as brought to memorable life by Darren McGavin, was a pesky, straw-hatted news-service reporter with a nose for turning up gruesome supernatural circumstances behind murder stories, an eye for investigative detail, but a mouth that inevitably got him in trouble with his editor, co-workers and the authorities. The TV movies and the spinoff series were a devilishly original hybrid of journalism drama and shadowy horror, with liberal doses of tongue-in-cheek humor. Kolchak was a believing iconoclast left on his own to ferret out werewolves, space creatures, bogeymen, murderous spirits and even evil creeping moss.
Now Kolchak has been brought back by ex–X-Files writer Frank Spotnitz for ABC, but this is one decidedly unfrightening resurrection of the Night Stalker. For one thing, Kolchak no longer looks like a middle-aged, dingy-white-suited slob — which always helped signify his apartness from society — now that he’s played by Stuart Townsend, an actor who in real life has hooked Charlize Theron and has numerous fan sites devoted to him. Townsend plays Kolchak as if he were the smoldering front man for a whiny rock band. And instead of the volatile mixture of noirish wit, bullshitting and outrage that characterized McGavin’s portrayal, brooding is this new Kolchak’s primary emotion. Maybe this is because the new, damaged Kolchak has a tedious Mulderish motivation to uncover all things paranormal and weird: the tragic back story of his wife’s mysterious murder. He’s also been given a Scully in Gabrielle Union, who plays a skeptical reporter colleague. (That means, of course, more flirting with each other than flirting with danger.) There’s a Jimmy Olsen–type tag-along, too, because evil-fighting on TV is done in teams now. So much for Kolchak the shaggy loner. If you haven’t been catching the original in syndication on the Sci-Fi network, the DVD is worth checking out to see how enjoyably freaky and cheesy and vibrant an hour of entertainment programming can be without ever having to succumb to coolness. Why is the new Night Stalker, then, trying so hard to be like everything else? Something in the water, I guess.