By Cory Barker and Noel Kirkpatrick
Test Pilot File #61: Surface
Debut date: September 19, 2005
Series legacy: Yet another one of the so-called post-Lost clones; part of NBC’s descent into ineptitude
Hey there, and welcome back to Test Pilot. We’re still kicking around with our post-Lost failures theme, but if you need a little refresher:
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?
After Invasion and Threshold, we move to the final of the “year of Lost-y failures” shows, Surface. NBC’s entry into the high-concept sci-fi drama arms race, Surface follows a disparate group of people experiencing various, ultimately related alien-related events. (It’s sort of weird that all of these shows are actually about alien invasions, huh? More on that in a moment.) Unlike Threshold, Surface was never pulled off NBC’s schedule per se; it aired 10 episodes before the 2006 Winter Olympics, then aired a handful more, and was just never renewed. Unsurprisingly, the show had a dedicated fan base, leading to an ineffective petition of 15,000 signatures hoping to keep the show alive. While all of these shows have been forgotten by audiences, it seems like Surface is the most forgotten, perhaps partially because it aired during a notable nadir for NBC in the 2005-2006 season that only produced one new series that made it to a second season (My Name is Earl). But we’re here to bring Surface back into your conscious, just like a sea creature slinking from the depths of the ocean and into your personal fish tank.
Noel joins me today, mostly because he just loves aliens, terrible television, and being a good friend. He’s up first with thoughts that aren’t what I would call “positive,” but also aren’t wholly negative either.
Noel: A little personal history before we dive in (“dive in”! Get it?! I’m hilarious.). From the fall of 2003 to the spring of 2005, I didn’t really watch TV. I was away at my first two years of college, and during primetime, I was normally studying, writing papers, or actually being sociable. So tons of things passed by in those two years, particularly this rash of Lost clones. Hell, Lost technically past me by a little, and I only caught up thanks to networks realizing, “Oh. Hey. Shows on DVD before the new season starts. THAT’S AN IDEA.”
Anyway, as I was watching the Surface pilot, and looking over your two previous installments in this run of Test Pilot, I’m a bit flummoxed. Part of this is just that I didn’t watch these shows (I was too busy catching up on things), but the other part is that they don’t seem like Lost. Goodness knows that Surface really doesn’t. Though perhaps that’s the problem? All these attempts to capture Lost always missed the essential thing about Lost, which it was characters and their pasts and those intersections that made the show interesting, and the mystery puzzle box, though it eventually overtook the show and the spotlight, wasn’t as important.
One other thing, however, is just a genre issue. As you’ve pointed out, Cory, the two shows you’ve looked at so far have been alien invasion stories, and Surface is more or less an alien invasion story, except from the Great Depths instead of the Great Beyond. All the traits are there: Cute kid who wants to befriend the creature; man obsessed with the creatures because they abducted a family member; and scientist who (sort of) discovered them but is being shut out by the government (because they already knew about it, of course). None of this feels like Lost; it feels like an alien invasion story. Yes, it’s still a high-concept show with a easy to sell tag (“Aliens from the depth!”), but it doesn’t have that sense of character and that sense of place that really defined Lost, at least for me anyway. It is too focused on a mystery, but the mystery isn’t all that interesting.
Which isn’t to say that I disliked this first episode of Surface, because I didn’t. I mean, part of me was always going to like this because I like inversions of this sort of invasion storyline. Aliens have been done to Mars and back, and it’s old hat by now. The notion of other, hostile species from the planet’s oceans, which we are only starting to scratch the surface of in the same way we’re only starting to scratch the surface of Mars, is a lot more terrifying insofar as it’s a lot closer to home. Space is this vast, unknowable thing, but so are our oceans, and there’s just so many intensely weird and bizarre lifeforms down at these hydrothermal vents, let alone what we might discover in the Mariana Trench.
So from a premise standpoint, I was pretty much in for the episode. Yeah, it’s moving around a hell of a lot, and letting us know it, too, but it sort of fed into the new lifeform discovery story, so I was fine with that, though the time between events is practically nothing but it has to be a few days, and it hardly feels like it. As I alluded to above, the characters are all really stock, trading on very set, single note characteristics, so there’s no one to really connect with on a personal level. I barely remember names of characters, and I just finished watching the episode 20 minutes ago.
Sadly, I decided to read the show’s Wikipedia page to decide if I wanted to slot this in between Rockford Files (which is far too much fun, by the way), all my 70s and 80s sitcoms on my DVR, and those episodes of Top of the Lake and The Fall. Reading that, I decided that, no, I’m not going to go on because, well, it sounds like it became really idiotic, and I just don’t have the time for it.
Cory: If this theme has accomplished anything, it’s that Invasion, Threshold, and Surface were all unfairly compared to Lost. That show cast such a big shadow–especially after the huge success of its first season, something it couldn’t even match–that it was really inevitable that any broadcast show with science fiction elements, sizable casts, and serialized storytelling was going to be measured against the island drama. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the networks were trying to hook people interested in high-concept shows, but frankly, it’s more fascinating that they all went to the alien invasion well in trying to capitalize on that presumed renewed interest. If you’re familiar with the origins of Lost you know that it was pretty much a crap-shoot from the beginning and its success was a product of timing and dumb luck. Thus, I understand why the networks didn’t try to just do some island drama. However, why in the hell were there three alien invasion shows debuting within two weeks of each other?
The only answer I can come up with is that it’s just one of those things that happens amid the industry’s screwed-up development process and pilot season. Fairly regularly, there’s a glut of shows on different networks that feel of a piece, seemingly as if the network heads had a meeting together and said “We all need X.” A couple of years ago, a never-ending stream of Friends-esque shows about a group of people in different stages of relationships bombarded us. It happens. In 2005, I guess it happened with alien invasion stories. War of the Worlds also did big business at the box office that summer, so in the 2004-2005 period, Hollywood was really cooking up this kind of project.
In any event, disassociated from Lost, these three shows make for interesting comparative viewing. While they all include similar elements–large-scale invasions somehow involving water, law enforcement involvement, possible body snatching–they also approach the material in importantly different ways. Invasion is clearly the best of the three because it focuses (at least initially) focuses on a small group of related people and how the event impacts them. Threshold is much more concerned with BIG STAKES and CONSPIRACIES, along with the procedural and forensic elements. Surface is both a combination of those two takes and a little of its own thing because it tries really hard to key in on how the invasion is shaping individual lives, but unlike in Invasion, those people aren’t connected whatsoever. Meanwhile, it immediately introduces the possibility (nay, probability) that the government is covering something up, yet our heroes are mostly shut out from that process instead of having to deal with it from within like in Threshold. I think that Surface is ultimately a better pilot than Threshold because it’s not spit out through the CBS Procedural Machine 2000 and gives its cast a few moments to be personable so we can invest in them. And yet, I cannot really get behind Surface either because it asks the audience to invest in three parallel stories that aren’t quite interesting enough on their own, but also don’t coalesce in any great fashion either.
As we’ve said over and over again during this theme, the greatness of Lost was almost entirely about the characters and their relationships with one another. The mysteries of the island were very compelling, but were still secondary to the people. Surface isolates its three main characters–Lake Bell’s Laura, Jay R. Ferguson’s* Rich, and Carter Jenkins’ Miles–in separate stories. On one hand, this tactic gives the audience a trio of perspectives on what is a large-scale story, but on another hand creates a a disconnect between them that takes some time to develop. Research tells me that Laura and Rich meet in episode two and then regularly reconnect, but Miles does his own thing until the eventual series finale. I was happy to discover that certain characters met one another relatively quickly once the series got going, but at the pilot level, you don’t necessarily get that experience. It sure feels like the show is going to take a while to pull on the threads together, which again is fine, but none of them are that compelling in their own right.
*My favorite part of the entire pilot is that Rich’s story is basically Future AMC Supporting Character Theater: Mad Men’s Jay R. Ferguson and The Killing’s Brent Sexton and Eric Ladin, all playing hillbillies.
There’s also something to be said for how shows like this use–or don’t use–simplicity with their mysteries. Again, Lost: simple. People on crash on an island, and there’s a few weird things happening, but the more pressing issues are survival. Even X-Files started out with a simple premise (skeptic and believer solve weird crimes, with government interference) before spiraling out of control. But these shows, especially Threshold and Surface, front-loaded the mystery and the conspiracy in an attempt to hook the audience from the jump. In both pilots, there’s almost immediately something otherworldly happening, then the government’s right there, and then we’re already dealing with a HUGE, likely global problem. I understand the desire to want to introduce stakes, create big intrigue, and get people on the internet guessing about what’s really going on, but man, just relax.
I never thought Lost moved too slow, even in the well-documented “frustrating” or “weak” seasons, because the show spent so much time in the early going making me care about more than a dozen people that I was just really happy to spend time with them. Of course I wanted to know more about The Others or understand the geography of the island and locations of the hatches, but I also really wanted Charlie to regain Claire’s trust or Jack to rediscover confidence and the ability to trust. So many of the shows that came after Lost simply never understood this and just kept piling mystery on top of conspiracy on top of overheated questions.
What will be really interesting is to check in with the next few shows in this theme, those that had a little more distance from Lost‘s initial triumphs. Invasion, Threshold, and Surface all had their problems (the latter two much more than the former one), and were probably all unjustly evaluated based on a perceived resemblance to a certain kind of show. The fact that shows like this kept making it onto network schedules after 2005 and still do in 2013 is somewhat due to the success of Lost, but also due to the always-present allure of high-concept, serialized television. Lost is absolutely the best of these shows to thrive on broadcast, but there were failures of this type before it, many after, and there will be even more in the future–which again only reinforces the confluence of luck and talent that was Lost.
Conclusions on legacy: Maybe not as bad as you remember, and unfairly compared to Lost, but mostly pedestrian.
Previously on Test Pilot: Threshold