By Cory Barker and Les Chappell
Test Pilot #59: Invasion
Debut date: September 21, 2005
Series legacy: The first (and perhaps best-remembered) of the post-Lost serialized misfires
After an extended delay, Test Pilot is back and I’m happy to bring it into the This Was Television family. If you missed Monday’s announcement post, here’s briefly what we do with Test Pilot: A guest co-writer and I watch a pilot and (hopefully) provide two distinct opinions on the episode. Ideally, my guest and I are coming from to different viewing perspectives. Maybe one of us has seen the entire season or series that the pilot kicks off; maybe the other has never seen a second of it. Shows can change a lot after a few episodes, let alone an entire run, so Test Pilot often results in some really interesting discussions about what pilots represent and how shifts and turns reflect various industrial or cultural concerns.
Today’s entry kicks off a new theme that is focused on shows perhaps a little more recent than we typically handle here at This Was Television, but I think the conversation will be no less engaging. Over the next few editions of this feature, my guests and I will discuss some of the shows that debuted in the aftermath of Lost with hopes of becoming The Next Lost. ABC’s 2004 island-based drama interjected life into broadcast television with a sprawling story with a large cast, flashbacks, mystery, and a grand narrative with hints of the supernatural around the edges. We know that television is a copy-cat business, and by the next television season, the networks were trying to replicate Lost‘s success with a slew of shows heavy on the mystery that hooked some Lost viewers, but mostly light in their focus on the characters and emotional stories that appealed to even more Lost fans (especially in the first season). Every season, there’s at least one show that tries to tap into some of the magic that made Lost such a big hit from the jump, and with few exceptions (the first chunk of Heroes episodes), viewers don’t buy it.
But were all those shows actually as bad as the viewer and/or critical resistance made it seem? Or were we all just too close to Lost that it was hard for any other show to share a similar function? Those are some of the questions we hope to explore over the next five editions of Test Pilot.
We kick things off with Invasion, ABC’s first attempt to capitalize on its own success. The Shaun Cassidy-produced series debuted in the fall 2005 in a post-Lost timeslot. The ratings were very good at the beginning (over 19 million viewers!), but quickly slid downward as the season progressed (it certainly didn’t help that viewers turned against Lost in its second season, or that Lost never helped build another show in its six years on ABC’s schedule). Though Invasion might have made it on ABC’s schedule because the network thrived with Lost a year earlier, the show certainly owes more to The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as it embraced science fiction elements much quicker than Lost did. No matter the reason, Invasion cratered enough for ABC to say “no thanks” to a second season, thus beginning the network’s multi-year journey to find a replacement for Lost.
Les joins me today to discuss Invasion. He’s a Test Pilot vet, and a Revolution survivor, so he has some things to say about mostly-empty serialized shows about science fiction-y conspiracies. Let’s hear about all your grief, Les.
Les: As someone who’s just spent the last season ragging on a season of Revolution, the topic of this Test Pilot series is one that’s near and dear to my heart. Having suffered through a whole season of idiotic plot twists and continual sacrifice of character for the sake of surprising twists, I’m in the right mindset to tackle a show released in more immediate proximity to Lost to see where this slippery slope may have started.
And Invasion is interesting to me chiefly because I’ve never heard of it before. Around the time it aired I was a college junior spending most of my time at the student newspaper offices or getting used to having my own apartment for the first time, so I wasn’t keeping up with the big-name shows that were on the air or anything that wasn’t Comedy Central reruns. And unlike many of the failed Lost clones, Invasion hasn’t become a punchline to the degree that something like FlashForward has, so there hasn’t been the temptation to seek it out for a demonstration of spectacular failure. (Conversely, it also hasn’t earned a reputation as a long-forgotten gem mistreated by the network, so there hasn’t been a qualitative reason to hunt it down either.)
The theme of this discussion is the failure of shows that were trying to be Lost, and it’s hard to get more “trying to be Lost” than the opening of Invasion, which literally opens up with a plane crash. A C-130 flies into the eye of a hurricane in order to obtain a computer map of its structure—which I assume makes them the TV equivalent of Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt’s team in Twister—only for them to be torn to ribbons by a mysterious shower of sparks that flies into the air and tears the plane asunder. And the sparks then accompany Hurricane Eve to the town of Homestead, Florida, landing in a nearby swamp under the cover of the storm, settling under the water and giving off an ominous glow as they flicker from place to place.
Following the storm, it soon transpires that those sparks may be more than a light show, as individuals who were trapped outside during the storm are recovered mostly undamaged but moving through their daily lives with a somewhat vacant look on their faces. There’s hints of potential government involvement as the local sheriff seems to share a closer connection with the victims, the discovery of a skeleton in the water that appears to have been sucked, and a declaration of a disaster area that leads the government to place the whole area under quarantine. What results is a general feeling that something’s rotten under the surface, but at the moment the problems are being swept away in the immediate wake of the storm, the major questions and plot steps not even being touched on until the closing moments.
And really, that gets to one of my central problems with the Invasion pilot, in that it’s just… well, dull. I can appreciate a show that’s going for an air of mystery, or a show that’s determined to pace its action to keep from being an onslaught of craziness in the early goings. But even with those reservations there wasn’t much to hold my attention for much of the start of the show, as the bulk of the activity was devoted to hurricane preparation efforts throughout Dade County and setting up the mix of tensions within the blended family at the center. There’s some appropriately tense moments here and there as the storm proves more powerful than expected, particularly once the windows start getting blown out of Russell’s house and the cars start crashing, but the show is remarkably stingy with any sort of explanation about what’s going on. It gives the feeling that the writers are being too coy with the details, or that they haven’t yet figured out the story beats beyond some original imagery.
This could be because it’s spending most of its time trying to explain the convoluted family structure of the central cast, which took me about half the episode to finally interpret. To recap: Russell Varon (Eddie Cibrian) was once married to Dr. Mariel Underlay (Kari Matchett), and they’re now divorced with two children, Jesse (Evan Peters) and Rose (Ariel Gade). Russell’s now married to journalist Larkin Groves (Lisa Sheridan) and they’re expecting another child, while Mariel’s married the town sheriff Tom Underlay (William Fichtner), who has a daughter of his own Kira (Alexis Dziena). Also in the mix is Larkin’s brother Dave (Tyler Labine), a slacker who lives with Russell and Larkin as the world’s least effective babysitter.
As such, the family dynamic bogs things down to the degree that the mystery of the show feels understated in comparison. There’s a lot of time spent in the pilot establishing the beats and tensions of this family—tender phone calls between Russell and Larkin, scenes indicating that Mariel’s seen as a bitch by her son and ex-husband, and Underlay treating Russell with a thinly veiled layer of contempt. Invasion’s made the choice to draw viewers in by giving them a cast of characters and then immersing them in a situation rather than the other way around, which can work in certain circumstances. Here it doesn’t for me personally, partly because the family members are fairly generic: the bitchy ex-wife, the slacker brother-in-law, the nosy teenage daughter, etc.
But I’m also willing to admit that I may be biased, if only because the lead of this show is NICK DALTON himself, Eddie Cibrian. If you remember my writing from the primordial pre-This Was Television days of 2011, you’ll remember that I thought The Playboy Club was one of the worst shows of that season (and a well-deserved early cancelation), and a large part of it was they were asking Cibrian to play a Don Draper-type, a role his bland and oily performance style was in no way capable of. Thankfully in this case he’s more bland than oily as he plays the role of skeptic and concerned father, but he’s still a far cry from living up to what I consider a leading man. Even when he’s trying to seem loving to Larkin or his kids there’s no real chemistry in any of the interactions, and I find it hard to invest in the idea that he’ll be our point-of-view character as things move along.
The rest of the cast is more hit or miss for me. I always like seeing William Fichtner in projects, and his Sheriff Tom Underlay is obviously being set up as someone who’s in the know about what’s going on without being obviously evil. On the other side of obvious, Tyler Labine may as well have a “Hi! I’m your Hurley-style comic relief!” sign on his head as the conspiracy-obsessed brother-in-law, opening up with trying to find beer during an thunderstorm. Everyone else is chiefly forgettable, from Lisa Sheridan’s understanding female reporter to Kari Matchett’s ex-wife with the creepy smile post-swamp experience. (And Cory, I know you’re beyond pleased to have the star of the Tate Langdon Confessions Evan Peters back on your TV.) Unfortunately, what sticks out in my memory is largely the scenes I was annoyed by, such as Rose yelling her cat’s name in an increasingly whiny tone early on in the episode (CAR-LEEE-TAAA!) or the efforts made to establish Mariel as a humorless bitch so her transition to Stepford ex-wife was made more jarring.
While the cast didn’t do enough to keep my attention, I will give the show credit that it does present itself well. The pilot is directed by long-time Aaron Sorkin collaborator Thomas Schlamme, who proves he can shoot thriller as well as he can shoot political intrigue. The shot of the lights falling into the swamp has a kind of eerie beauty to it, and while I think the show spends a bit too much time on the hurricane buildup as opposed to getting to the mystery it builds its sense of place admirably, and the early post-hurricane* shots convincingly portray Homestead as an area shattered by what’s happened. And when Dave and Russell go hunting for signs of alien life in the swamp, the lights underwater and the creature dragging both men under temporarily are tense and unsettling in all of the right ways, choosing to leave its appearance to the imagination in the early goings.
*Invasion also falls into the category of shows that have been adversely affected through no fault of their own due to real-world events, as Hurricane Katrina forced ABC to scrap a large portion of its promotional campaign to orient around the aliens rather than the hurricane.
Ultimately though, I think Invasion’s biggest problem is that none of it stuck with me to any great degree. I didn’t hate anything that I saw in this pilot (Rose’s whinging calls for her cat aside) but I wasn’t engaged with any of it to a degree that has me clamoring to find out what those glowing shapes are or what Sheriff Underlay’s underlying motivations are. As I said at the start, I’d never heard of the show before now, and as it stands the odds are good I’m going to forget it fairly easily. I’m not dismissing the possibility it could become engaging a few episodes down the road, it just doesn’t become engaging fast enough for me to want to seek out any more of it.
Cory: Your frustrations with the mystery elements here are well-taken, and where I wanted to start my discussion of the pilot as well. As someone who watched every episode of Invasion live and for some weird reason, owns the first and only season on DVD, watching the pilot move slow out of the gate isn’t as troublesome. I of course know where this story is going. I know what the bright lights are, I know what happened to Mariel, and I know why Tom is acting so suspicious and creepy here. On a basic level, I’d encourage you to stick with it for at least a few more episodes because I would argue that Invasion is far and away the best of the mediocre series riding the wave of Lost. The answers to all these questions come within the first season and the show opens the door to larger mysteries and grander stories in a way that makes sense for a story like this. Invasion isn’t great, but it’s better than Revolution, or even the first season of Heroes (which is like the one thing people like to point to in these discussions).
However, the presence of such mystery and non-answers is one of the defining traits of early Invasion, and more importantly, the kind of shows we’re going to be talking about throughout this theme. Although Lost‘s pilot offered up a few important plot-based mysteries (What is that noise in the jungle? Where are we?), the show was at the beginning much more interested in establishing characters and questions about their personal histories. Much of the discussion we’re having here and I imagine I’ll continue to have with folks as the theme progresses is how the Lost clones focused way too much on the mystery or the overly-complicated plotting, as opposed to devoting time to making the audience care about the people in the middle of this inter-galactic conspiracy. Yet, Invasion‘s pilot (and much of the season) is kind of weird because it actually does devote that time to the characters, but still manages to keep its larger plot cards close to the chest.
You’re right in that much of the pilot is dedicated to defining the odd family structure, and although some of the scenes don’t really work (the extended sequence where Rose whines about the cat and runs away is annoying, but it does give us the lovely shot of the lights), the commitment to making these characters feel like real people is much more present here than it is with just about any other of these types of shows. The opening sequence with the airplane is silly, but it’s also short enough that the pilot can move onto to introducing us to the relevant regulars. After that initial salvo, Invasion takes a long time to get back to the mystery or the possibility of alien life. I could see how that might seem slow or plodding, but I tend to prefer that approach over something like FlashForward that immediately jumped into its tentpole sequence without much context, or Revolution that relied too heavily on exposition while doing something similar. Those two shows were clearly trying to ape Lost‘s epic opening sequence, and for good reason–it’s the best in television history. Meanwhile, Invasion tries to have it both ways: The airplane scene serves as the first jolt, but then it runs away from those problematic (albeit initially compelling) moments where a lot of information is thrown at the audience that they’re supposed to think is important later.
Moreover, while the overarching mystery does return near the pilot’s conclusion, one of the things I enjoy most about Invasion is that many of the mysteries are character-based. Before Dave discovers the weird skeleton and he and Russell have their little excursion out on the water, the biggest questions of the episode are about Tom’s creepy, knowing reactions to all the hysteria happening around him. William Fichtner plays Tom with a nice level of almost spiritual centeredness and burgeoning malice, a performance that Kari Matchett clearly tried to ape once Mariel had her experience in the hurricane as well (or maybe the two actors worked together; Fichtner is still better). Tom is a weirdo even before the storm hits, but he’s also not just an enigma for enigma’s sake. Although the pilot probably turns Mariel too quickly to give the character the proper amount of texture, her transition from overbearing ex-wife and mother to simultaneously detached and calm also has a purpose. I’m projecting a little of my enthusiasm for their arcs across the season, but I appreciate that the story here is, at least initially, interested in the people and not just some larger confluence of secrets, lies, and conspiracies.
I know that you hate Cibrian, but he’s kind of perfect for these bland milquetoast everyman hero roles, isn’t he? He isn’t Don Draper, he’s just a dude. I have a little trouble believing that he’s a father to someone Evan Peters’ age, but the pilot goes out of its way to suggest that he’s not the most observant father at times. In keeping with the Lost comparisons, Cibrian is like a homeless man’s Matthew Fox, and this show never really asks him to reach the same kind of depth Fox did on Lost, so he’s fine. And Tyler Labine is great! Reaper was his real breakout role, but his raw enthusiasm plays nicely against Cibrian’s minor charisma. The rest of the cast is fine, but each of them gets a chance to show off throughout the season.
On that front, while I admire Invasion‘s focus on characters, I also think the show was smart to keep that focus on a small batch of close-in-proximity characters. One of the more frustrating elements of these kinds of shows is how quickly they can jump into global conspiracies with more than a dozen characters scattered across the globe, slowly moving towards one another. Heroes and FlashForward both relied way too much on this structure, where the disparate connections between people led to scattered and ultimately unsatisfying storytelling. Here though, the pilot centers in on one (admittedly messy) extended family, and at the largest, one community. Even though this is a story about an alien invasion and subsequent government cover-ups, the story never gets away from these related people who the events directly impact. Again, some of the establishing of these people and their relationships is a little dry and slow, but for me, it’s a worthwhile approach to telling stories like this.
Finally, this all works for Invasion because the premise, mystery or not, isn’t that complicated. There’s an alien invasion, some body snatching, and some cover-ups. The show takes a little time to clearly explain this as the season goes on, but there aren’t many moments in the first season where the narrative takes a wild left turn, or steps outside of its constructed realm. If we think back on so many of these shows, the premises sound quite interesting, but also totally unsustainable. Everyone blacks out and then sees their future? They’re part of a bank robbery gone wrong, but they don’t want to talk about it? There’s an event, or something? What made Lost so great was that the concept was so simple at first (plane crash on an island), and once the characters were mostly established, the premise grew into more complex, sci-fi and spiritual stories. I wouldn’t say that Invasion ever reached a much higher level of complexity, but its fairly straightforward premise progresses from the pilot in a mostly logical way, mysteries aside.
Consequently, I still find Invasion to be the most satisfying of the heavily serialized, mystery-based post-Lost dramas. It never totally feels like it’s trying to ape Lost like so many of the others; it just happened to debut the year after Lost and right after it on the schedule. This is probably going to be the best this theme gets.
Conclusions on legacy: A little better than you remember, but still not that memorable