‘Colony’ Has All the Elements But None of the Ambition to Be USA’s Next ‘Mr. Robot’

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My review copy of Colony, USA’s new series that’s been publicized as a Lost reunion first and a sci-fi drama second, came with a note warning that “all spoilers” are embargoed until after its premiere tonight. It’s hard to know what counts as a spoiler with a show like Colony, though, both because the definition of the term has been expanded beyond all reason and because, true to the show’s DNA, Colony starts suspenseful and only ramps it up from there. All of which is to say that I’ll do my best, but when every commercial break comes with a cliffhanger, all plot details are spoilers.

So let’s start with the basics: Colony stars Sawyer Josh Holloway as Will, a former Army ranger and FBI agent reduced to working as a mechanic under the Occupation. The precise nature of the Occupation is, of course, left deliberately ambiguous, but all the signs of a standard alien invasion scenario are present and accounted for: the giant, sinister wall that isolates greater Los Angeles from the rest of the world; the omnipresent police force and the equally omnipresent drones that accompany them; the generally dystopian vibe of a society that no longer has regular access to coffee, bacon, or even insulin. Presiding over all this are the faceless “Hosts,” precisely the alien-overlord stereotypes Arthur C. Clarke subverted over half a century ago in Childhood’s End.

The Walking Dead‘s Sarah Wayne Callies hops from one post-apocalypse to another as Will’s wife, Katie. They have three children, though only two live with them; their middle son, Charlie, was separated from them during the Arrival. (It wouldn’t be a sci-fi series if it weren’t chock-full of normal words transformed into jargon through the magic of the shift key.) Will is discovered on a mission to find Charlie in the wilds of, er, Santa Monica, and that’s when the Proxy Governor of the Los Angeles Bloc (Peter “Dr. Taub” Jacobson) makes him an offer he can’t refuse: put his special-ops skills to good use by infiltrating the inevitable Resistance or land his entire family in a labor camp. In a development unsurprising and early enough that it can’t possibly count as a spoiler, Katie turns out to be an active Resistance organizer, giving the Bowman family all the requisite loyalties and conflicts and potential traitors to drive a series.

What Colony is, then, turns out to be simple enough: a tense and well-executed sci-fi drama with shades of espionage thriller and even, thanks to Will’s new job and the wisecracking partner who comes with it, police procedural. What might be more noteworthy is what Colony isn’t: namely, a play for prestige in the vein of Mr. Robot, a far more visually and thematically ambitious show that just netted USA its first-ever Golden Globe.

This is particularly evident in Colony‘s treatment, or lack thereof, of the themes implied by its title. Earth may be a colony under Occupation — 341 days of it, at the series’ start — with both insurgents and native Collaborators who live in areas (here, the Hollywood Hills) rather unsubtly called Green Zones, but co-creators Carlton Cuse and Ryan J. Condal show little to no interest in exploring that very loaded imagery. This is made all the more baffling by the fact that their hero, having previously served in Afghanistan, is a onetime occupier himself. All the pieces are there for Colony to become an exploration of imperialism and what happens when America becomes the object of its own decades-long foreign policy, but Cuse and Condal give zero hints of ever moving them into place.

Which brings us to who Cuse, best known and prominently billed in Colony‘s marketing materials as an executive producer and writer on Lost, isn’t: Damon Lindelof, a man whose relationship with Lost‘s legacy and fandom is so tortured he famously quit Twitter, then went on to make a show as utterly disinterested in creating a sense of mystery or impending resolution as Lost, and now Colony, was. Cuse’s post-Lost career has been considerably less tortured than Lindelof’s; in the half decade since it went off the air, he’s made a living showrunning genre series for cable, some (Bates Motel) more successful than others (The Strain, still going but critically spurned, and the American remake of The Returned, about which the less is said, the better). As for Condal, who wrote the screenplay for the Dwayne-The-Rock-Johnson-vehicle version of Hercules, Colony is his first series.

All of which is to say that Colony is considerably less interested in pushing the boundaries of its influences, à la Mr. Robot, or of viewers’ expectations, à la The Leftovers. Instead, it offers a suitably photogenic pair of leads, a monolithic and easy-to-identify Big Bad, and just enough urgency and action scenes to keep viewers invested. In other words, underneath its surface layer of big stakes and bloody shoot-outs, it’s closer to USA’s traditional comfort food than it appears. No spoilers necessary.

Colony premieres on USA tonight at 10 pm.