Thursday, September 22, 2005

Start With The Mundane

There are two basic ways to handle scary. You can start off with a really scary situation and then back it off a bit before bringing the scary level back up, and really have a roller coaster effect except that with a roller coaster each hill is a little lower than the one before - a necessary result of the dependence on gravity for momentum - while in this kind of story telling each hill is higher leading eventually to the dramatic climax.The other way, the method that Alfred Hitchcock and other greats preferred, was to start with the mundane and build gradually to dramatic peaks. Threshold took the first approach, while Invasion the new show on ABC following Lost takes the approach of starting with the mundane. The only trouble is that in the first episode at least it seems to only go a little beyond the mundane.

Invasion does start with a scary scene, a televisual effort to let us all know that the people we're about to see aren't hallucinating or anything. A stormchaser aircraft - basically a Hercules transport filled with all sorts of electronic gear intended to monitor hurricanes and the like has made it into the eye of the storm and is taking measurements when suddenly their instruments go all haywire - the only way to describe it - and the wing of the plane is hit by what can only be described as a geyser filled with glowing lights erupting out of the ocean. And that the last we see of the plane - well intact anyway - but then the military isn't the focus of this anyway, it's the dull normal people.

The "dull normals" in this case are centred on Russell Varon (Eddie Cibrian) a Park Service ranger in Everglades National Park and his oddly typical extended family who we meet in a series of neatly linked scenes. There's his new and pregnant wife, newscaster Larkin Groves, her brother Dave (ne-er do well isn't the term for him - he's a classic mooching brother-in-law), Russell's young daughter Rose and his teen aged son Jesse who are Russell's kids with his first wife Mariel. Mariel is married to the local sheriff, Tom Underlay who himself has a teenaged daughter, Kira. The real story - their story - starts as they're preparing for the arrival of the hurricane in Homestead area of south Florida (at one point Dave makes reference to the abandoned air force base which undoubtedly refers to Homestead and in another reference Russell mentions the 1996 crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Everglades). Everyone is doing well except young Rose who, with her brother, are under the tender care of "Uncle" Dave. She's lost her cat and since neither Jesse - who is busy trying to get plywood on the windows of Russell's house - or Dave - who is searching the house for more beer - is interested in helping her look for the cat, she goes out into the storm alone. While out there she sees "the lights", the same lights that took out the storm plane this time falling to earth. Back at home everyone, which by now also includes Mariel, is going nuts trying to search for Rose. There's a moment of post-divorce discord which ends with Russell telling Mariel to go back to town where she's needed Russell manages to find Rose but they're trapped when his car flips. They get home just in time to be confronted by the sheriff who wants to know where his wife is. They find her stark naked on a little islet in a big pond, but somehow she's "different".

Rose can't stop going on about the lights from the sky that she saw. Her father dismisses them as sparks from downed power lines but Dave decides to take her out on his airboat to look for the lights that didn't go out when they hit the water - he's a conspiracy nut and besides it's a good way to get out of having to fix the roof. They find a bit of wreckage which we at least know probably came from the wrecked weather plane and Dave sees some skeletal remains and although he doesn't haul them aboard with Rose along he does come back to get them because there is something weird about them. He shows them to the skeptical Russell and probably because of something he saw earlier when dealing with Mariel, Russell decides to go out in the airboat that night. In the water they see a light moving up and down through the water. Russell dismisses it as bioluminescence - at least until it pulls Dave deep into the water and tries to eat him. The mundane has just become a little bit scary.

There's no need to talk about the pedigree of this series. It is a blatant ripoff of the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956, or at least that's the way the first episode looks - producer Shaun Cassidy indicates that appearances can be deceiving, that at its heart it is a vamily drama, but we'll have to see. There are cryptic hints that Mariel and a priest who has been rescued from the water have been changed significantly - Mariel "smells" different according to Rose, and to viewers she seems more "serene". There's also a notion that the sheriff has changed too but it doesn't become absolutely clear until the last scene that he has changed as well and before the hurricane. There are a couple of nice moments in the script, as when the sheriff's daughter Kira talks about how her dad thinks TV news is important because "it distracts people from the truth" which at the time seems like a statement from someone who is arrogant modified by someone ill informed but becomes chilling once we know for sure that he was changed at some point in the past and the "truth" is something bigger.

I like the cast, who are for the most part relatively unknown. Besides Cibrian, who was one of the last firemen on Third Watch, probably the best known actor is William Fitchner (the shuttle pilot in Armageddon) as Sheriff Tom Underlay. It's hard to explain but he has the right look for his part. Canadian Kari Matchett who played numerous roles in the Nero Wolfe series from A&E plays Mariel (she grew up in Spalding Saskatchewan) plays Mariel - and trust me when I say that her apparent nude scene, even if it was from a distance, was enjoyable. The question I have to ask is whether the audience is willing to accept what initially at least looks like a TV version of the classic Invasion Of The Body Snatchers on its own merits, and whether the potential audience is willing to let it build to it series of dramatic climaxes. Having Lost as a lead in is an asset since the two series to seem to appeal to similar audiences. On the downside it is opposite Law & Order and CSI: New York. Time - and ratings over time - will tell if this series will have the luxury of the time it seems like it will need to tell it's full story. I have my doubts althought here's no denying that, like Lost it has its own mysterious qualities.

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