The extended trailer for Colony, the glossy futuristic thriller that debuted on USA Network Thursday night, seemed to promise something yawningly predictable: a show about a swarthy hero (played by the apparently ageless Josh Holloway) navigating the streets of a dystopian Los Angeles to look for his missing son. A classic hero’s journey, in other words, only with drones, and some kind of mysterious occupation, and a big beautiful wall dividing the city.
The reality, as revealed in a twist at the first episode’s end (spoilers ahead, although nothing drastic because the whole series remains shrouded in mystery) is that the show is actually something far more intriguing. Holloway’s swarthy hero Will is there, sure, but it turns out he isn’t the hero. He’s the utterly basic, beefcake-ish foil to his wife Katie (Sarah Wayne Callies), a more incalculable and intriguing member of the resistance that her husband’s been tasked with infiltrating. It’s a plot twist, but it’s also, rather gratifyingly, a conceptual one: What was supposed to be a generic, Tom Cruise-ish alien drama is actually a show about the moral and ethical intricacies of marriage.
If that sounds familiar (hello, The Americans), then it’s important to note that Colony, which was created by Lost’s Carlton Cuse with Ryan J. Condal, is derivative of virtually every critically acclaimed genre show and movie from the last decade, sucking in tropes from detective dramas and spy stories and dystopian thrillers and sci-fi and historical adaptations and action movies so it can recycle them into a densely plotted, tension-ridden whole. What’s surprising is that it works so well. Nothing is particularly original except the show’s focus on Katie, a mother of three children, one of whom was lost when an event alluded to as “The Arrival” happened a year or so ago. While Will might have been the face used to sell and promote the show, he’s not even close to being the character it’s most interested in exploring.
The pilot opens in Los Angeles in the indeterminate future, with only a few layers of context unpeeling over the course of the episode (and presumably more left to come). The city is under occupation by alien forces—literal aliens, although as a character points out, “No one ever sees them,” perhaps because the budget was mostly spent on the show’s otherwise slick production values. During The Arrival, the aliens destroyed the city’s defense mechanisms in under eight hours and divided it into sections by building a vast silver wall around various neighborhoods. (Santa Monica is one, and a “green zone” for VIPs appears to be in the Hollywood Hills.) They also seem to have destroyed all modern technology, given that the only way people communicate in the show is via payphones. Many humans, accepting that the invaders are here to stay, have joined them, and are known as collaborators. Others have become part of the resistance. But most, it’s implied, are simply trying to get along, dealing with the food and drug shortages and the disappearances that are now part of daily life.
Colony borrows most heavily from the Nazi occupation of World War II, in both imagery and structure: The ruling “hosts” have covered the city in posters featuring their red-and-black logo, the “proxy” governor of the divided city lives in a mansion filled with looted masterpieces, people trade food and sundries in a black market, and order is maintained by an aggressive troop of “redhats,” or heavily armed, masked soldiers. Humans seen as weak or defective are deprived of medical care, forcing Katie to surreptitiously raid a hospital for insulin for her diabetic nephew. But there are also hints of 21st-century warfare in the aforementioned green zone and the IEDs the resistance plants all over the city.
In the first episode, which is available in its entirety online, Will attempts to smuggle himself across the wall into Santa Monica to find his son. But a rebel blows up the checkpoint while he’s hidden inside a truck, and he’s arrested, whereupon his background as a former special agent and ex-army ranger is uncovered by Proxy Governor Snyder (Peter Jacobson), who orders him to enter the resistance as a double agent and help reveal the identity of its leader, Geronimo. (The alternative is going with his wife and two remaining children to the “factories,” hinted to be a place you don’t return from.) Will agrees to the plan, and even seems to enjoy it, to the consternation of Katie, whom it’s revealed is an active member of the force trying to undermine the occupiers.
Holloway is charismatic as Will, in a floppy-haired, drawling kind of way. But he’s overshadowed by Callies, whose Katie is closely guarded and extremely tough (in one scene, she pulls a gun on a woman who tries to trade her crappy insulin for a bottle of Jameson). It’s hard not to think that this is deliberate—in a later episode, Will tries to patronize a young blonde who he believes is his underling, and is confused when she coolly replies, “Wait, were you under the impression that you were going to be in charge here? That’s funny.” The series subverts traditional gender stereotypes from genre shows as much as it shamelessly appropriates other elements. It channels HBO’s The Leftovers by picking up a year after significant events occurred, rather than letting the audience watch them play out, and it mimics The Americans in the ways in which it forces a husband and wife into a team and then pits them against each other.
Colony will play out across 10 episodes, with elements of the central mystery being revealed as the series progresses. Why is the city divided? Is Los Angeles the only American city under occupation? What do the aliens look like? (Birds, possibly, given that their logo features an eagle.) What happens in the factories? These are all secondary issues, with the most intriguing question being, can a marriage survive a husband and wife informing on each other? Colony might not be particularly original, but it’s compelling nonetheless, delving into moral and ethical quandaries via complex and engaging characters. Following in the footsteps of Mr. Robot, last year’s widely praised USA drama about hackers, it proves that the success of that show wasn’t just a one-off, and that the network can more than hold its own amid the landscape of Peak TV.