I’ll admit that in my own way I am kind of a film and T.V. show snob. OK, not kind of: Some would argue that I’m picky as hell. Not that I’m terribly sophisticated or anything. Really I’ve decided that my snobbishness when it comes to any kind of drama boils down to three factors: 1. how easily I can predict what’s going to happen; 2. how complex and interesting the characters are and finally; 3. whether or not there is any viable comic relief. I can forgive some implausibility, less-than-clever dialogue, goofy costumes or makeup, oversights in continuity, etc. if a show or movie succeeds on at least two of these counts, or hits it out of the park with at least one.
Unfortunately “Defiance” failed for me on all three parameters with its premiere. Let’s start with 3, and move backwards. I think the comedy was supposed to come mainly from the smart-ass alien doctor, but for me she wasn’t smart-ass enough, just uniformly cranky, and her complaints (“damned dead-beats,” or whatever she called Joshua and Irisa when they couldn’t pay her) and admonishments (“rush me and we all go BOOM!”) were not funny. I did find the beer-bellied wookie-like alien bodyguard chasing after his Jack Russell puppy somewhat amusingly bizarre, but I’m not sure that was what was intended. Maybe Nolan’s half-hearted chauvinism towards the mayor is supposed to be funny, but it doesn’t work for me, not because I’m some sort of hyper PC watchdog, but because it helps to pigeon-hole the character into the ceaselessly copied Han-Solo type. Not that I didn’t appreciate Han-Solo. That’s just the point: no Han-Solo type I’ve encountered has ever come close to Harrison Ford’s Han-Solo, so show me something different already!
Which really brings us to 2. Sad to say but I feel like I’ve seen all these characters before, but done better: Irisa reminds me of Faith from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but she doesn’t appear to have the unflinching edge that made that character so compelling. The happy prostitute character Kenya harkens to Inara of “Firefly,” but she has none of the classy exotic flair, sophistication, or mystery of that character. The cranky doctor I suppose could be compared to Dr. Bones of Star Trek fame, but I’m guessing she will not live up to his level of sardonic cantankerousness. The hot-headed, work-obsessed, daughter over-protecting rich guy of the mining owner McCawley: yep, seen him before. The devious siren woman-behind-the-man of the Stahma character: ditto. The Mayor? She’s the familiar earnest, tough, but lacking-in-confidence leader that such shows like to employ. One of the better examples of this type was president Roslin from Battlestar Galactica, but whereas that character displayed interesting extremes of toughness and weakness, and was eminently intelligent, moral, and fallible, I’m getting the sense Defiance’s mayor Amanda is going to remain much more of an ingénue, who therefore won’t catch on to her mentor’s deceit until well into the series, when it’s predictably almost, but not quite, too late.
(Sidebar: Speaking of stuff we’ve seen before, why are so many alien alcoholic drinks neon blue??)
So that brings us to 1. Let me say this: To his alleged consternation, I have enjoined my fiancée in the sport of making in-progress movie and T.V. show predictions (he used to complain when I stopped a streaming show or movie, or whispered in his ear at the movie theatre to make a prediction; now he’s doing it himself. Ha!) and he made some great ones, including the type of little shaming speech that the Mayor would make to the rogue/vagabond/thief-with-a-heart-of-gold lead character Joshua Nolan when he was packing up to make his requisite callous exit before the grand battle. I think my newfound protégé’s predicted version of the speech was actually snappier than Amanda’s actual lackluster one, by the way.
The bottom line is that the two of us were predicting the whole way along: the just-add-water instant burgeoning romances, the inevitability of both Joshua and Irisa returning to help Defiance fight the Volge, the fact that the mayor’s assistant would turn out to be up to no good, and likewise the former Mayor, the fact that Nolan would, with reluctance of course, of necessity become new “lawkeeper” in town, the fact that the expensive orb Joshua and Irisa had scavenged would save the day. And the list goes on. Unlike what some other critics have proposed, for me this level of predictability does not amount to a pleasant familiarity that makes the unfamiliar setting more palatable: it just bores me, and no amount of oh-that’s-interesting alien aesthetics or politics, or unexplained backstory about what’s happened to earth will keep me watching if I know, essentially, just what’s going to happen, and if I can’t connect in a meaningful way with the characters.
By contrast, much as I’m neither really a zombie-horror fan, nor a fan of gore in general, I have a deep fealty for “The Walking Dead” because: 1. I can predict very little, specifically, about what will happen, other than, forgive my language, BAD SHIT! And; 2. The characters are, for me, as interestingly complex as real people are, and their actions, reactions, decisions and dilemmas reflect this without compromise. Throwing those characters into an apocalyptic scenario (any would probably suffice–the fact that it’s a zombie plague seems almost incidental) makes for one hell of a compelling show. I don’t think a lot of comic relief is appropriate given the nature of the show, so I don’t dock the writing on that count. Instead what we get are some little moments of tension relief when the characters share moments of reflection, affection, lust, grief and so on in the midst of chaos. Brilliant!
So maybe, come to think of it, 2 is more important than 1, because if you have as a foundation of a drama complex characters (i.e. multi-dimensional, somewhat ambiguous, imperfectly good or bad, morally conflicted, consistent yet harboring contradictions), it should not be that easy to predict what will happen, regardless of the specific genre of the show or film.
In sum, I’m going to give “Defiance” a few more tries, just in case it might be able to surprise me. I might want to at least find out what’s up with Datak’s bleached out steam-punk garb, or what sorts of alien sex might be bartered at the brothel. As you can tell I’m not holding out much hope, but I want to play fair. Meanwhile I’ll be on the lookout for any other prospects to satisfy my snobbish criteria for “worthwhile drama.” (Especially since “Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” are done for the season.) Suggestions welcomed!