I have this strange fascination with junky American TV shows. If you consume enough of them, you start to notice beguiling patterns, like how seemingly any setup or plot idea can be reduced to a buddy cop show. Seriously, literally anything. Did you know there’s a show where Ichabod Crane from the legend of Sleepy Hollow wakes up in the 21st century and helps a police officer stop the acpocalypse? No, really. I didn’t make that up. A show started this season where Lucifer helps the LAPD solve crimes. It’s called Lucifer. Its Wikipedia page describes it as “an American fantasy police procedural comedy-drama television series.”
Isn’t that just delightful?
And then we come to Colony, a show that hits every single note on the high-concept low-intelligence American TV checklist, and which I rabidly consumed every episode of. I don’t know if it’s any good or not.
The setup is that aliens have invaded Earth and now control the cities of the world via proxy governments staffed by human collaborators, who are empowered to do basically whatever they want within their zones of influence as long as they follow the instructions of their unseen masters and maintain law and order. Former soldier and FBI agent Will Bowman and his beautiful shiny family live in Los Angeles, which is now separated from both the outside world and Santa Monica– the seat of the local occupation government– by alien-constructed walls. His youngest son Charlie was in Santa Monica when the invasion went down and they’ve had no contact with him since.
During an attempt to sneak past the wall and track him down, Will is caught in a bombing attack orchestrated by the human Resistance and apprehended. The occupation government dangles a tempting offer over his head: use his FBI criminal-tracking skills to hunt down “Geronimo”, the enigmatic Resistance leader, and in return Charlie will be returned to him. Oh, and he and his entire family won’t be spirited away to the “Factory”, a labour camp where minor criminals and political prisoners are sent to toil on some mysterious project. He accepts the offer, but there’s a wrinkle he’s not aware of: his wife is working for the Resistance to bring down the occupation government, and with her husband’s new job she’s just gotten an inside source on all of their juiciest secrets.
Here are some things you must know about Colony, in no particular order:
It opens with an extended sequence where Will affectionately greets each member of his blindingly white family as they eat breakfast in a spotless kitchen that looks like it just got done being used as the set for a detergent ad.
The Santa Monica area is– for no particular reason– called “the Green Zone”, in case the fact that this is all an elaborate metaphor for the Iraq war wasn’t already obvious enough (astute readers will have picked up on the fact that Geronimo was the codename given to Osama Bin Laden during the nearly decade-long effort to hunt him down; the fact that the Geronimo in the show turns out to be a hyped-up propaganda chesspiece whose apprehension doesn’t actually do anything to stop the Resistance will likewise stand out to anyone paying the least bit of attention).
Also, there’s a bit where a guy who kind of looks like Saddam Hussein is executed via hanging while dressed in an orange jumpsuit as a ploy to win hearts and minds among the local population.
The aliens’ presence is mostly invisible, save for hyper-advanced drones that fly around menacingly and occasionally blow shit up in retaliation for Resistance bombings. This is a metaphor for the Unites States’ hyper-advanced drones that fly around menacingly and occasionally blow shit up in retaliation for resistance bombings.
Will has a teenage son who acts rebellious. The show gives him a sub-plot even though he isn’t interesting.
Will’s partner in the Alien CIA is an older black guy who wears ugly Hawaiian shirts and has an ex-wife. We never find out if he’s getting too old for this shit and/or four days away from retirement, but I assume he is.
And yet. Despite all of that. Ten episodes, people.
Part of the reason I stuck with the show so obsessively is that it’s very good at ratcheting up tension and throwing characters into ever-more precarious situations. Most of the first half of the season is a gigantic slow-motion pileup where five different interconnected sets of espionage, back-stabbing and secret-keeping hurtle toward their inevitable collision, which frankly makes for absorbing TV regardless of the show’s actual quality.
But the other reason is that it does actually do some fairly smart things in terms of humanising and exploring everyone involved in the alien occupation, from the ordinary citizen on the street to the head of the LA proxy government. In the hands of lesser material this could easily descend into Bioshock Infinite-style “what if both sides are just as bad”, but here something more nuanced is taking place. The central theme of the show is the trade-off between safety and liberty: do you keep your head down and just try to make sure you and your loves ones make it through alive, or do you give up your security and safety for freedom?
On a micro scale, Will and his wife Katie represent two possible answers to that question: Will decides to work (reluctantly) with the Occupation to save his family, throwing aside any notion of trying to free humanity, while Katie is willing to risk everything for a better future. Both of these choices make sense to them, and they each have completely understandable reasons for making them; when they finally confront each other at the end of the season it’s difficult to side with one or the other based on anything other than gut instinct.
On a larger scale we have the Resistance versus the Occupation authorities. On the one hand, the proxy government is executing and imprisoning people on a daily basis; on the other hand, the Resistance actions inevitably put innocent bystanders in the line of fire and bring brutal retribution from the authorities. This is no heroic band of scrappy rebels. The forces arrayed against them are so vigilant and powerful that they must be utterly ruthless and without remorse to have any chance of defeating them, but how far can you really go in that direction before the people you’re ostensibly trying to save get tired of being dragged into your fight?
Where Colony really comes alive is in its portrayal of the high ranking figures in the Occupation government. As Will is brought deeper into their world it becomes apparent that they’re operating out of a genuine belief that the aliens can’t be defeated, and that the only way for humanity to survive the nightmare is for order to be maintained at any cost. Any brutality they inflict on their citizens in service of that goal is justified, because their inhuman masters will do far worse if they fail (we learn that at least one entire city has been wiped off the face of the Earth in revenge for the killing of two aliens). Late in the season it’s revealed that the proxy governor of the LA colony, who up until this point has seemed like a completely craven bastard, has been taking a far lighter approach than most of his peers in the hope that he can eventually replace the stick with the carrot; this backfires spectacularly when the Resistance predictably exploits every moment of weakness or hesitation for their own gain.
No matter what their place in the story is, the humans in Colony find themselves in situations in which there are no morally correct courses of action, and the show’s main strength lies in gleefully mining these impossible scenarios for all the tension they’re worth. And unfortunately, that might be its greatest weakness in the long run, because it would be very easy to tip the balance and end up devolving into that lazy “both sides are just as bad” approach that the first season so deftly avoids. Given that the last episode hints at the arrival of a new, more ruthless administration and a promise from one of the showrunners that the Resistance will grow more frightening and violent in the second season, I’m very much afraid that the people at the reins of Colony don’t actually understand the show’s appeal as much as they think they do.
The other potential issue is the barely-hinted-at motivation behind the invasion of Earth, which seems to have something to do with children. In the first episode, LA’s proxy governor tells Will that the aliens are on Earth to fulfil a specific need, and that they intend to leave once it’s met; this absolutely must turn out to be true (or at the very least, the human authorities have to sincerely believe it’s true) for cooperating with the occupation to be a justifiable survival strategy. If it’s not, the scales tip firmly in the Resistance’s favour and the series becomes another retread of asking how far people are willing to go for freedom, or a show about how War Makes Monsters Of Us All.
Either way, I intend to stick around to find out. At the very least, it will be amusing to see how stupid the show gets.