Back in college, I took every course I could on literary theory. Not only did I want more techniques to employ when reading various texts, but I also liked the idea that there was more than one way to approach a particular problem. That desire pretty much sums up anyone who majors in the humanities, since it eschews a “right” answer in favor of precise, singular solutions. Some of these literary theories seemed too antiquated for proper deployment (Aristotle’s “Poetics”), and some of these theories were too esoteric for anyone not on a series dose of happy pills (hello, Derrida and your cursed deconstruction). Weirdly enough, the one I rejected most at the time is one I return to when dealing with shows such as “Terra Nova”: New Criticism.
New Criticism emerged in the early part of the 20th century and championed a close reading of the text as the singular, most important act one could perform upon it. Indeed, the text is central and all-encompassing in New Criticism, and pushes anything external (including the author of said text) to the side in order to derive meaning. The college-aged version of myself hated this idea, because it felt too simplistic. “Surely a text is the sum parts of the authorial, cultural, and historical forces that produce it,” once said a version of me that still had hair upon his head, “We can’t just look at the text and derive meaning!”
Well, sometimes, you can. Not always, but I’ve come to appreciate the focused approach of New Criticism when trying to brush away what we THINK we know about a particular television show and what we ACTUALLY know. Back in my heyday writing about “Lost,” I poured over cast interviews, alternate-reality games, and went down the rabbit-holes of physics, time travel, and a host of other academic disciplines in order to derive meaning from the show. Instead, I should have been looking at the show itself to reveal its meaning. Learning about Minkowski time-space was something that definitely enriched me as a person (I’m a total blast at cocktail parties now, trust me), but I’m not sure it enriched me as a critic trying to explain the meaning of “Lost.”
Let’s apply a specific example from last week’s premiere of “Terra Nova”: I couldn’t figure out why we were supposed to root for a couple which broke the laws of a dystopian society that enforced strict fertility protocols. One could argue said laws themselves were immoral, but the show seemed to suggest they were necessary given prior sins committed by man. And yet, “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” was all the explanation we got from our nominal protagonist. After the episode aired, critics who had seen earlier versions of the pilot explained that, once upon a time, scenes existed in which Jim and Elisabeth Shannon talked of conceiving Zoe in the hopes of saving their marriage. That’s all fine and well…but that isn’t in the final cut. Therefore, we really can’t apply it to the psychology of these characters as currently constituted. Nine million people watched that pilot. I doubt nine million people know about this deleted scene.
The “text” we have to look at here isn’t the sum total of all media surrounding it. The text is the 2-hour show that aired last week, and all episodes that will air forthwith. That’s all we really can analyze, and it’s probably best that we take this approach rather than try to psychoanalyze authorial intent, wade through footage that never made it onto broadcast, or focus on the show’s troubled production history. “Terra Nova,” like all televised entertainment, is a cultural product. But so much analysis, both in reviews and comments, centers around hypotheticals that obfuscate the actual product onscreen. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But in order to do my job better, and to give “Terra Nova” the fair shake it deserves, I’m going to attempt to isolate it from the culture that produced it and analyze the artifact itself.
So what do we have, stripped away of all that extra baggage? An incredible lackluster episode, unfortunately. Long gone is the scope of last week, where you couldn’t go thirty seconds without an expensive FX shot filling up your screen. Having the show reduced to human-scale wouldn’t be a bad thing…if they humans weren’t the worst part of the show at this point. What stood out last week weren’t the people in this mysterious world but the mystery of the world itself: what’s the purpose of the colony? Why do the Sixers want to undo it? What do the drawings on the rocks have to do with what’s going on? All of that was stripped aside in favor of Alfred Hitchcock by way of SyFy.
For the Shannons to resonate emotionally with those watching, we have to actually see them together for more than a few minutes per episode. Honestly, Jim’s Mr. Mom routine might have been the best part of the entire hour, in that we actually got to see something relatable onscreen. The idea that this man needs to reconnect with his family after his stint in prison is a perfectly fine (if perfectly rote) one. But I don’t mind tropes played with specific flair, and what transpired while Elisabeth worked late in the night had nothing to do with a time-travel show involving dinosaurs and had everything to do with a family trying to find familiar rhythms in their own specific way.
Sadly, such scenes were few and far between, as both a figure from Elisabeth’s past and the prehistoric version of “Angry Birds” separated the Shannons for most of the hour. First, said birds attack a recon group in the jungle. Next, Josh (mercifully toned down since the pilot, but still fairly awful), decides it would be fun to taunt the Angry Birds on the fence near his abode and prompt an in-camp attack. (My note during this scene: “Those birds are doing God’s work.”) When more birds turn up, we learn that the camp itself is giant, enormous man-made Josh to these creatures, since it was built upon their original mating grounds. Silly humans: you just ruin it for EVERYONE, no matter what time stream you’re in.
“Terra Nova” seems to think it needs dinosaurs in order to create tension. Maybe future episodes will be dino-less, and I look forward to seeing what a human-only episode looks like. But the dinosaurs tonight simply served as plot rather than narrative. The latter pushes the overall story forward; the former just keeps the tale running in place. The difference lies in the characters: do they evolve over the course of the hour and end up further along than they started? Jim and Elisabeth finally got some time alone by episode’s end, but I’m not sure they are fundamentally different people than the ones we saw at the outset of the hour. Sure, Elisabeth’s old schoolmate Malcolm is there to supposedly add tension, but that would imply we know enough about the couple in the first place to feel threatened by Malcolm’s interference. The show needed to either develop character before adding another threat, or develop character through said threat. Tonight’s episode achieved neither of those things.
Other thoughts about tonight’s episode:
*** Jason O’Mara has a good future as a befuddled dad in a dramedy when “Terra Nova” ends. He’s been a charismatic black hole in much of his previous work, but his chemistry with the two daughters has been an early highlight.
*** When Stephen Lang signed up for this role, I’m not sure he realized his character would be forced to relive the horror of a dino orgy. Luckily, that all took place off-screen. But on that note…
*** …pretty crazy how two major missions into the jungle took place offscreen, right? Both the mission to obtain two live specimens and the mission to lure the horde to a new nesting ground took place during commercial breaks. Maybe that didn’t bother you, but it certainly felt as if I had somehow temporarily blacked out and missed those scenes.
*** The budding Maddy/Reynolds romance feels like something out of a YA novel. It’s tonally odd in the middle of everything else going on in this show. Then again, maybe it’s just one part of what the show is: an attempt to be everything to everyone. In that vein, look for a loudmouthed Brit to come through on the 11th Pilgrimage to mock everyone’s singing.
*** Speaking of pilgrimages: sounds like communication from Terra Nova to 2149 is possible, given that Malcolm specifically put in to have Elisabeth sent during Jim’s incarceration. Sounds like the show is laying groundwork for the mythological aspects of the show with that line.
*** I dug The Merchant with No Legs. Make him a recurring character, please. Especially if he clocks Josh over the head with that guitar at some point during sweeps.
*** Josh? Little advice, buddy: when you’re hitting on Skye, it’s probably best to take the necklace given to you by your girlfriend in the future off. Actually, know what? For reasons I can’t fathom, that actually seems to be working for her. Forget I said anything.
*** SyFy execs have to be watching “Terra Nova” and thinking, "It's no ‘Mansquito’. It's GOOD, but it's no ‘Mansquito’."
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Does a “normal” hour of this show feel connected to the pilot, or a pale shadow of it? What is working the best/least for you early on? Sound off below!