Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Terra Nova and the Family Drama Problem

Terra Nova was conceived as a family-oriented adventure show about living with dinosaurs, and it's advertising campaign seemed to focus on the latter pretty extensively. So of course I was interested in the show, because dinosaurs are awesome (see: Jurassic Park). However, over the first three episode, the show's had plenty of problems. First of all, there's not nearly enough dinosaurs. The use of genre cliche and clumsy Hitchcock homage is laugable at times - only three episodes in, and we're already playing the amnesia card? This is to say nothing of the uncomfortable racial subtext of the Terra Nova colony's conflict with the rebellious, "evil" nearly-all-black Sixers.

But the real problem with the show (again, aside from the shortage of dinosaurs eating people) is that it's trying to be a family drama. Now, there's nothing wrong with this aspiration; it could make a crackerjack family drama within this setting. But that would involve interesting characters engaged in interesting relationships, something that Terra Nova barely has. So far, the only standout character is Stephen Lang's Stephen Lang Military Badass Commander Taylor, the colony's leader. He's not even part of the central family. That would be Jim & Elizabeth Shannon (Jason O'Mara and Shelley Conn, respectively) and their brood, consisting of angsty older son Josh (Landon Liboirion), bookish middle daughter Maddy (Naomi Scott), and adorable, oft-missing moppet Zoe (Alana Mansour). The problem with this group is that none of them plays a character so much as an archetype, therefore making the relationships between them seem more like a chore than an organic, revealing development. 

It's a shame to see a show with so much promise failing like this, but the good news is that it's not to late to fix these mistakes. In fact, there's even a cautionary tale from just last season that should provide inspiration for repair: No Ordinary Family. It, too, was a genre show (superheroes!) trying to be a family drama first, but succumbed to the same problem of having a family populated by archetype and cliche rather than characters. I wish I could tell you how it ended, but I bailed halfway through the season (which, you have to understand, is a really big deal; I almost never give up on a show midway through the year), and never bothered with it after it was cancelled. But I can tell you that it never lived up to being the family drama it wanted to be, nor did it succeed as a genre show about superheroes, something that should have been perfect for the television format (similar to Fantastic Four comic books, but you don't have to read!). 

So how can Terra Nova fix this problem? For one, flesh out the characters more. It's still early in the season, so there's nothing wrong with moving forward and giving more interesting dimensions to, well, everyone. The other major change they could make is to stop acting like the family drama and sci-fi elements have to be kept separate; you can embrace both! Dive deeper into the colony and create an interesting but not overbearing mythology, preferably one that doesn't require massive amounts of exposition. Perhaps then Terra Nova could live up to it's promise.

Oh, and more dinosaurs. Definitely add more dinosaurs.


Univarn said...

I wrote something very similar about the show on Sunday. Right now if they replaced the entire lead family I'm not sure if anyone who bat an eye.

Jason H. said...

I concur. And it's not that they're untalented actors: they just don't get anything good to do.