Watching last night's episode of Terra Nova, Fox's time travel dinosaur serial, we came to a realization: It's a very, very strange show.
Last night's episode, about the hunt to uncover a secret spy amidst the colonists' ranks, wasn't particularly weird or anything, but it still helped prove our bigger thesis. What is so strange about this show? Well, as others have noted, there is something curiously square about this series. It's a family program in the way that "family programs" hardly exist anymore. There's something very 1990s about it -- it's not squeaky clean like something older than that, it's still trying to have a little edge to it, but boy if it isn't mostly four or five slabs of butter a week that are neatly cooked down by the end of the episode. The show is so neatly wrapped up every week there should be a "The End" title card at the close of each episode.
And that is definitely strange! Strange for the TV landscape of 2011, strange for a major Fox show on a Monday night. Remember when shows like this -- and we mean exactly like this -- used to air in syndication on Saturday nights? This show's analogues aren't Fringe or Lost or Battlestar. They're Xena and Relic Hunter and the stupider episodes of Star Trek: TNG. There is something so mysteriously, almost alarmingly, goopy and retro about the show that it's hard to feel like you're not missing something, like there must be some other angle or reason or nuance to the show that you're not getting. They can't possibly have just put Hercules: The Legendary Journeys with dinosaurs on the air in 2011, right?? Wrong! They did. They totally freaking did.
And oh brother, that cutesy, all-buttoned-up-by-the-end-of-the-night family stuff is such a bizarre throwback. The shallowly brooding teen son who pines away for a long lost girl while not seeing the total moon goddess right under his nose, the shy teenage girl who's being wooed by the gentle lump of muscle she met on the first day of dinosaur camp, the perky curious little one. There is something really odd about how familiar these characters seem, as if the show is populated by ghosts from, well, a mid-1990s childhood. Who knew that Terra Nova of all shows would feel so haunted. It's head-scratchingly strange.
Strangest of all, though, is that we're still watching! We don't miss an episode! We know the show is silly and sometimes embarrassingly lame and all the dumbo broadstrokes are painfully easy to see from a mile away, but boy if it hasn't still managed to snare us all the same. That really is the weirdest thing. There's an odd magnetic appeal in that creaky corniness. It's maybe the same reason we're still watching Once Upon a Time, another gapingly wimpy show that still managed to get a huge network rollout. In this time when the conventional wisdom is that shows need to be either grim (murder! so much explicit, awful murder) or edgy (2 Broke Girls talks about vaginas!) or "smart" (the dismayingly limping The Good Wife comes to mind) in order to appeal to today's savvy, don't-have-time-for-this audience, here's programming that's straightforward and high-concept in a storybook way and that's all. If Terra Nova wasn't such a thin, silly show, we'd be tempted to call it revolutionary.
That said, too bad it'll be gone in December. The 14 episodes filmed will play out and then, it seems, the show will be on hiatus until next September, if it comes back at all. Hm. That seems like a miscalculation on Fox's part. If they want to keep the show, will anyone still be oddly enchanted by this goofy series nine months later? Well, we hope so. It would be sad to see this earnest, bizarrely hopeful little series (yes despite all the budget and pomp and special effects, it's a little show) cruelly snuffed out.
Don't we deserve a little easy weekly satisfaction? Or are we going to be jerks and stick up our noses and say, oh no, we're too old for that?