Dinosaurs and southern hospitality. Sounds like just the thing to get over the first day of the work week. Jeff Giles travels back in time to explore the Steven Spielberg-produced, highly anticipated family adventure series, Terra Nova. Meanwhile, Chris Holmes reviews Hart of Dixie and asks the age old question: will anything ever be as good as Everwood? Enjoy!
These are dire times for fans of long-lasting, densely woven serial drama, at least if you’re a viewer who still hews to the notion that the major networks are supposed to be a reliable source of scripted entertainment.
The last time a series managed to find the sweet spot between creative strength and advertiser-friendly demographics was Lost — so it’s hardly surprising that Fox’s latest serial gambit, Terra Nova, owes that show such a heavy debt.
The premise, put simply, is kind of like the dystopian future of An Inconvenient Truth plus elements of Stargate, Land of the Lost, and, yes, Lost. That probably doesn’t sound so simple, which is sort of the point — Terra Nova is an earnestly ambitious, albeit very messy, tangle of TV drama tropes, jumbling together dystopian sci-fi, time travel, soapy family strife, and dinosaurs in a ballsy bid for your leisure time.
Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t always work. Terra Nova‘s development cycle was notoriously bumpy; the show was supposed to debut last year, and the pilot that Fox eventually aired bears the nips and tucks of last-minute network tinkering. Watching the show, I thought about a recent quote from Jerry verDorn, a soap vet who reflected on the genre’s recent ratings woes by musing, “This medium got into trouble when they started worrying about production values… They tune in for one thing, and that is story. We could do this in front of a black screen and it would be fine.”
I think that’s even true, to an extent, of a show like Lost — even with its elaborate mythology and fabulous locations, what kept the show moving, and made it riveting in its finest moments, was the strength of its main characters. They were all three-dimensional, and they all had secrets you wanted to know.
That’s where Terra Nova really falls down, at least during its first two hours. The show’s main family, the Shannon clan, consists of tired archetypes: the smart, tough cop dad (Jason O’Mara); the kind doctor mom (Shelley Conn); the genius daughter (Naomi Scott); the rebellious son (Landon Liboiron); the cute youngest child (Alana Mansour). There isn’t a single glance or line of dialogue between this clan that feels fresh — which says a lot, considering that they’re, you know, 85 million years in the past.
So how do they get there? Well, they live in a dank, polluted future America, where you have to wear portable filters to breathe and the government has mandated a strict two-child limit. (Yes, the Shannons have three kids. More on that in a second.) Mankind’s only hope is a rift in space-time that allows specially selected groups to travel into the distant past. (Except it isn’t our distant past — it leads to a separate timeline, thus preventing wacky Back to the Future Part II-type shenanigans.)
The pilot’s first act shows the Shannons getting caught breaking the overpopulation law, a conflict dear old Dad solves by busting a cop in the face and going to jail. Two years later, the family is selected to go to Terra Nova without him, so Mama Shannon slips him a portable laser, and he works his way onto the transport.
It’s the type of high-stakes setup that should get your pulse pounding, but it rings surprisingly hollow; it’s oddly paced, leaving the viewer too much time to notice holes in the plot, and it really doesn’t even need to be there — everything that happens in the first 15 minutes could have been explained later on, using some of the reams of nakedly expository dialogue the writers ladled into the screenplay.
It has its weaknesses as a drama, in other words. Where Terra Nova excels is in the sweeping spectacle department, and it’s easy to see the pilot’s reported $20 million budget on the screen — but I question whether there’s enough of an audience to make the network’s enormous investment worth it. Spectacle is fine, but it isn’t necessary to support the stuff that really matters: a story that hooks us in, and characters strong enough to tell it. At this point, I’m not sure Terra Nova has enough of either to be worth your time.
It’s going to take a lot for The CW to get back in my good graces after pulling the plug on one of my favorite dramas of the last decade — Everwood — in favor of a show — Runaway — that didn’t even last a month. Hart of Dixie, a fish-out-of-water show about a Big City doctor moving to a small, Gulf Coast town, is a tentative step in the right direction.
I say tentative because Hart of Dixie’s first episode was a promising but flawed hour that requires quite a bit of suspension of disbelief. Let’s start with our heroine, Dr. Zoe Hart (The O.C.’s Rachel Bilson). Dr. Hart is a promising young doctor with dreams of becoming a world-class cardio-thoracic surgeon like her father. Bilson is charming and leggy enough, but can you buy her as a top-flight surgeon? Yeah, me neither.
After Dr. Hart gets turned down for a high-falutin’ medical fellowship because of her overly clinical approach to her patients, she leaves New York City to accept a job offer as a general practitioner at a small practice in quaint Bluebell, Alabama. Hijinx ensue, including a run-in with a handsome but totally Southern-fried neighbor who shares an electrical generator with Dr. Hart and who would be played by a shirtless Matthew McConaughey in the film version.
Oh yeah, and Dr. Hart meets Burt Reynolds, a pet alligator owned by Bluebell’s mayor, who just happens to be a former NFL star. Doesn’t that all sound just positively zany?!
I’m not even going to make hay over Hart of Dixie’s simplified and strangely idealized vision of southern Alabama. I don’t imagine that it’s nearly as backwoods as the show portrays, but there’d be no point in having Bilson’s character move there if it was just a carbon copy of, say, western Connecticut. The town of Bluebell and most of its residents are plot devices, and that’s OK by me.
Besides, if I have to deal with my home state of New Jersey being shown to the rest of the country as nothing more than Mafia hangouts and landfills, then the good people of Alabama can suffer the indignity of being associated with fried catfish, Southern Belles, and humidity.
OK, so this all sounds pretty bad, right? Well not really. Despite a rather predictable and one-dimensional first half hour, Hart of Dixie displayed flashes of real dramatic potential in the back 30. Dr. Hart, who through a series of earlier comic misadventures manages to alienate seemingly half of Bluebell, makes a nice connection with a troubled teen. She also discovers the reason why the late Dr. Harley Wilkes was so keen to bring Zoe to Bluebell in the first place, but I won’t give that away here. Suffice it to say that it provided the motive needed to keep the series going.
The show also managed to establish a few adversaries who should be interesting to watch (this is a drama after all). Tim Matheson plays Dr. Brick Breeland, who shared his practice with Dr. Wilkes and basically comes right out and tells Dr. Hart that he plans to drive her out of town. Then there’s Lemon Breeland (Jaime King), one of the aforementioned Southern Belles, who hides her disdain for Dr. Hart about as well as my 18-month-old son hides his disdain for having his diaper changed. And they both make the same faces.
No, it’s no Everwood, and it may never be. But I’ll say that Hart of Dixie is worth sticking with for at least five or six more episodes while it finds its legs. With any luck it’ll turn out to be good enough that I’ll be complaining in 2015 that The CW canceled it too soon.