Alien invasions on the big and small screens have rarely been about aliens. They’re usually metaphors for whatever the scare-of-the-year happens to be: Nazis, communism, religion, lack of religion, race, colonialism, etc. Today’s scare-of-the-decade is terrorism and our response to it.
What’s the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter? What’s the difference between proactive policing and oppression? Can a tyrant’s collaborator have good motives? Can a self-proclaimed “freedom fighter” have bad ones? Whose point-of-view gets to control the narrative?
An alien invasion makes it safe to ask all these questions in Colony, a USA Network series created by Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Ryan Condal (Hercules).
The concept: something/someone has taken over Greater Los Angeles in the very near future and carved it into walled enclaves called “blocks.” A year into the occupation, a collaborationist Transitional Authority tries to keep a lid on a simmering insurgency led by a maybe-mythical Geronimo.
Will Bowman (Josh Holloway, Lost), an ex-FBI agent, has gone to ground as a car mechanic to avoid being imprisoned by the Authority; his wife Katie (Sarah Wayne Callies, The Walking Dead), out of work since the Authority shut down her bar, has secretly thrown in with the Resistance.
When Will is caught trying to sneak into the Santa Monica block to rescue his missing son, the Authority makes him an offer he can’t refuse: resume his old work finding fugitives—in this case, the Resistance—or he and his family will be sent to the dreaded Factory, which is, as Will S. put it, “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” Needless to say, everyone involved has ulterior motives and mixed loyalties.
The analogies fly thick and fast. The ur-text is, of course, the Underground in World War II—Cuse has said the series’ inspiration is Paris under Nazi occupation. The city-cut-into-walled-islands is a direct Baghdad reference, cribbed from our late misadventure in Iraq. (Read another way: the massive, silvery walls are a comment on the “separation barrier” between Israel and the West Bank, or the Berlin Wall.) Also straight out of Baghdad is the “Green Zone,” where the new 1% wallows in luxury—in Bel Air, naturally, where today’s 1% wallows in luxury.
When the Authority’s security forces, the Red Hats, roll out to oppress the normals, you’d be forgiven for thinking you saw them last year in Ferguson. The process of being prepared to go to the Factory follows the Auschwitz playbook point-by-point. Killer drones provide the eyes-in-the-sky for “Homeland Security” (what could they be saying here?).
There’s probably a Colony spot-the-historical-quote drinking game out there, but if there isn’t, there should be.
Despite (or perhaps because of) these cues, the producers and writers have so far made some effort to not go the easy or obvious way with the story. The Transitional Authority, as personified by Proxy Snyder (Peter Jacobson, House), is a heavy-handed police state led by weasel politicians, but their talk about fighting terrorism and protecting the population from radicalism is taken nearly word-for-word from what we hear on cable news today. The Resistance (led by a snarling Paul Guilfoyle, showing there’s life after CSI) is supposedly all about freedom, but their IEDs and armed raids kill more civilians than Red Hats, and they’re not above executing their own to keep them out of the Authority’s clutches.
We haven’t seen the Hosts (alien overlords) yet (if they even exist), so all this unpleasantness is humans sticking it to other humans in highly recognizable ways, making it a bit harder to dismiss the proceedings as pure fantasy.
Josh Holloway plays himself—if you liked Sawyer in Lost, you’ll love Will Bowman, complete with the same unwashed hair and scrubby beard. Will throws himself into his new Vichy-policeman gig with an enthusiasm that doesn’t always make sense given his feelings about the Authority. You might expect him to follow his partner’s (Carl Weathers, in aloha shirts) lead—take it slow, milk the perks—but no.
Katie seems at times too naïve and squeamish to be of much use to the Resistance, but she’s able to feed them intel on what Will is up to, which leads to outcomes she never imagined.
Her sister Madeline (Amanda Righetti, The Mentalist) is snuggling up to the Green Zone elite to score insulin for her diabetic toddler son. So it goes, with everyone lining up on their own sides and working at cross-purposes to everyone else.
Even though you’ve seen this basic story before, either with French and German accents or with human-skinned alien lizards (as in both versions of V), Colony is certainly watchable and often involving. Of course, the big suspense comes from the impending familial train wreck: when does Will discover that the droid he’s looking for is his wife? Given this is Carlton Cuse’s show, and he mastered weird and random in Lost, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that some version of polar bears or smoke monsters may show up when we least expect it, or we’ll flash back to Will and Katie’s grandparents’ involvement in the Algerian underground in the 1950s. However this goes, it’s worth your time to see if it’s your glass of pastis.
Colony airs on USA Network at 10 p.m. on Thursday nights. Past episodes are available on streaming video at www.usanetwork.com.
Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. There are no polar bears in his international thriller Doha 12, but there’s an underground of sorts in his near-future thriller South. He tweets (@lcharnes) about scuba diving, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.