TV Review: FOX's 'Terra Nova'

There's enough sizzle in this dino-drama to make up for the lack of steak

HitFix
B-
Readers
B+
<p>Stephen Lang of &quot;Terra Nova&quot;</p>
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Stephen Lang of "Terra Nova"

Credit: FOX
A fancy new restaurant opens up in your town.
 
The chef is a guy you've seen on countless Food Network specials, a true genius known for making every dish into a work of art.
 
The restaurant was also designed by an interior decorator who has been the focus of shows on Bravo and TLC, legendary for making the smallest space into a spectacle. 
 
But just days before the restaurant is ready to begin serving, you notice some interviews with the people behind the restaurant, the financial backers or whatever, and they're saying some weird things.
 
"Yes, people might talk about the food and design, but what we'd like to emphasize is our unobtrusive servers. There are lots of places people can go for a good meal and some fine ambiance, but we think diners will truly be impressed by how frequently their water glasses are refilled and the smooth removal of finished plates." 
 
That comment may make you stop and pause.
 
And it'd be similar to the reaction you might feel listening to the producers of FOX's "Terra Nova" talk about their new show.
 
You've heard about "Terra Nova" because of Steven Spielberg's involvement. You've heard about the ambitious shoot on locations down in Australia. You've heard about the motion-capture dinosaurs and special effects so special they've required months of extra development and implementation time in order to get "Terra Nova" on air at all. 
 
And then you see the "Terra Nova" producers at WonderCon or Comic-Con or you read or watch interviews with them from myriad media events. And over and over and over again, they seem to be saying the same thing: Well, sure there are dinosaurs and time-traveling. But really, what "Terra Nova" actually is, is a family story. We want people to come and stay for the family.
 
That's what the party line appears to be.
 
If this "Terra Nova" review gets one message across and one message only, it would be this: Do not watch FOX's "Terra Nova" because it's a family story. There are good family stories on TV and if you don't feel there are good family stories on TV, just start rewatching your "Friday Night Lights" or "Gilmore Girls" DVDs. But don't come to "Terra Nova" thinking you're going to get a gripping (or even marginally engaging) family drama and that anything else will be gravy. Tune in to "Terra Nova" because it really isn't like anything you've ever seen on TV before. The scope and special effects are exceptional and for all you've heard about the cost of the pilot, you won't wonder where the money went. Yes, there's a family story and that family story could improve as "Terra Nova" progresses, but it's the dinosaurs and the giant insects and the waterfalls and the lush scenery (real and digital) that will hook audiences.
 
And it's not like FOX doesn't know this. Note how advertising has focused more on marauding carnivores than dinner table conversations.
 
There's no particular shame in any of this, necessarily. "Terra Nova" does spectacle well. Why not own that? Why try to own "intimacy" and "domesticity," which it doesn't do nearly as well?
 
Full review after the break...
 
We begin "Terra Nova" with an intriguing (somewhat frustratingly so, since we may never return) look at the dystopic world of the 22nd Century, where the air is too nasty to breathe, population controls have capped families at two kids and the only true hope of survival is in either winning a lottery or earning a placement on one of the expeditions back in time by a whopping 85 million years.
 
Why 85 million years? That's how far back the crack in time -- it looks a ton like a Stargate -- goes. And why would we want to go back to the time of dinosaurs? Because it's better than "now." And why aren't we worried about the Butterfly Effect and other causal nonsense? Because, as the dialogue explains, this is a crack in time that takes us into an alternate time stream with no connection to our own. Might we be messing up the lives of Alternate Humanity in this Alternative Time Stream? Perhaps, but what are the odds that "Terra Nova" will last long enough for us to get our evolutionary answer to that question? Zero.
 
Anyway, we're being introduced to Terra Nova through the eyes of the Shannons. Elisabeth (Shelley Conn) is a doctor, so she's in demand. Jim (Jason O'Mara) is significantly less in-demand, having been sentenced to a mighty long time in a mighty nasty prison for picking a fight with the population control officers who aren't comfortable with his family having a pouty teenage son (Landon Liboiron), a nerdy teenage daughter (Naomi Scott) and a younger daughter (Alana Mansour), whose mere existence violates future-law.
 
But anyway... The Shannons make it through to Terra Nova, where they're greeted by Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang), who helpfully explains the rules of their new home and gives Jim a lot more backstory later in the two-hour premiere.
 
The producers keep talking about the Shannons as the reasons viewers will come back to "Terra Nova" in future episodes. I had hardly imagine this being the case. The Shannons may be pioneers, but they aren't interesting pioneers, in large part due to tinkering done to the original pilot. Once upon a time, Jim and Elisabeth had serious marital issues and their decision to have the illegal third child was a desperate last-ditch effort to save their union. It wasn't great drama, necessarily, but it was interesting to ponder how the show would handle a couple that kept doing these extreme things to stay together, but might now have run out of options. Now, thanks to some really brutal tinkering to the first 20 minutes of the pilot, Jim and Elisabeth are totally OK. Instead, the family tension comes from son Josh's annoyance that his dad was away in jail for a couple years. So Josh is pouty. And that's the only drama. When Jim and Elisabeth were having trouble, I didn't know how to properly counsel my TV. Now that it's just a bratty teenager grumbling about his dad, I have easy advice, "Get over it, you futuristic emo-dweeb." And I'm not being judge-y here. You watch the pilot and see if you don't wanna echo my sentiments.
 
It's a bad move to shift the focus anyway, since Conn and O'Mara are the two strong actors in the Shannon clan and suddenly their interactions have no tension at all. They're just two loving parents who happen to have been apart for a couple years while one spouse was in the hoosegow. Whatever. And the irony, of course, is that when the characters were butting heads, the actors had chemistry, while now without confrontation, there's none. Oh well. Conn and O'Mara are much more energetic when they're off at their respective Terra Nova jobs. O'Mara has been given a scene where he does topless weeding, while Conn gets to perform a particularly nasty piece of surgery, both scenes absent in the original pilot.
 
This leaves Lang carrying a lot of the acting heavy-lifting in the pilot. It helps that he's obviously having a great time, transitioning from his "Avatar" role to "Conan" to this. The veteran of the original Broadway cast of "A Few Good Men" is a master when it comes to rigidly flawed authority figures. [Speaking of which, I'd like to find a rift in time that would let me travel back in time to see Lang play Col. Jessep on stage.] I'm guessing most viewers will come away from the pilot with absolutely no interest in learning more about the Shannons, but a true curiosity regarding Commander Taylor. In fact, I'd already be developing a "Terra Nova" prequel about Taylor and the first migration into the past.
 
Because Taylor's backstory is so obviously interesting, "Terra Nova" has introduced a slew of mysteries in the pilot that will be enough to keep me going and enough to keep me ignoring the Shannons in order to get bigger answers. There are puzzles involving the 6th Migration, some cryptical geological designs and a future conspiracy. Those details will be far more persuasive than then Shannons in bringing me back.
 
But really, I'll watch "Terra Nova" for a while because it's a marvelously produced TV show. Like Sunday night's premiere of "Pan Am," this was one of the most expensive pilots of the fall and like "Pan Am," nobody's going to turn the TV off afterwards asking where the money went. 
 
All of those reports regarding special effects delays or missing footage from the initial pilot recede into the background when Taylor and Jim climb to the top of a hill and overlook the Terra Nova valley. The parts of the footage that are real Australian locations seem to justify the decision to take the production to a place most network shows don't venture, while the parts that were added in post look painterly and beautiful.
 
Questions about the ability to do movie-quality effects for the small screen vanish when you see the dinosaurs charge at Taylor or when you spot the slashers circling their potential prey.  I'm not going to say that any of the "Terra Nova" dinosaurs I've seen so far look appreciably different from what Spielberg gave us in the "Jurassic Park" films over the years, but they definitely pass the "cool" test. And even when working without special effects, the second half of the premiere successfully generates some thrills as the dinosaurs pick off a few expendable characters, but also terrorize some of the folks we've met. You don't exactly care about any of them yet, but you also don't want to see them eaten. At least not immediately.
 
I could certainly wish that there were more intellect in the background of "Terra Nova." The lack of a single strong creative force in the narrative is evidence in the lack of voice, but more importantly in the lack of clear theme. This doesn't need to be "Fern Gully," but there are ways of approaching this exact story that would dwell more convincingly on the impact humanity had in creating the crisis in the future and the steps being taken to prevent a similar catastrophe back in the past. The message doesn't have to be explicitly "Green," but why would it hurt? I just like the idea that humanity going back to restart civilization would take an ethos with them and two hours ought to have been enough time for evidence of that ethos to set in.
 
Who am I kidding? "Theme," like "character" and "acting" and "the family," won't be what's bringing viewers to "Terra Nova" and it won't be what brings them back. So the question is whether or not "Terra Nova" has enough sizzle to justify the irrelevance of the steak. And the answer, at least so far, is "Mostly, yes."
 
"Terra Nova" premieres at 8 p.m. on Monday (September 26) night on FOX.
Dan-feinberg-sm
Daniel Fienberg
Executive Editor
A long-time member of the TCA Board and a longer-time blogger of "American Idol," Dan Fienberg writes about TV, except for when he writes about movies or sometimes writes about the Red Sox. But never music. He would sound stupid talking about music.
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