Over the last two television seasons, both Fox and NBC have both tried to make science fiction and fantasy shows work, focusing heavily on the visuals rather than the conceptual and emotional architecture underneath them. Both Terra Nova and Revolution look good. Fox spent money to make sure its dinosaurs didn’t look like an embarrassment. In its pilot, Revolution’s abandoned shells of airplanes and overgrown Major League baseball stadiums have a handsome air of decay. But watching both those shows and the finale of SyFy’s Lost Girl in recent days, it’s striking the extent to which shows seem to be able to pull off either the look or the ideas, but rarely both.
For much of its first two seasons, Lost Girl managed to be a relatively low-effects show for a story set amongst the fae. The episodes relied on physical props, on people acting as if they’d been controlled, on wild eyes and good makeup and what looked like surprisingly enjoyable sex for basic cable. But in the second half of the second season, as succubus Bo and her human and fae comrades went to war against a powerful antagonist called the Garuda, the show’s effects faltered. Suddenly, it looked a lot more like Charmed, the WB show about three sisters who also happened to be witches, which started airing in 1998. The Garuda’s lair, like those of the demons the sisters faced down on Charmed, looked more like a basement hideaway than an evil citadel. His wings of fire were transparently terrible animation rather than a compelling deception. But even though the fight scenes looked disappointing, everything that surrounded them worked. The show had ideas it wanted to explore—Bo’s confrontation with the Garuda was a way for her to finally accept leadership within her community, and a tool for her to confront issues in some of her relationships with both humans and fae—and the actors involved had the chops to pull it off.
Terra Nova and Revolution both look a lot better than Lost Girl, a Canadian import that fits well into SyFy’s lineup, a place where the core audience is used to doing a little extra work to suspend disbelief. But even if the visuals on Revolution make it easy to believe that the population of the United States has dramatically shrunk, and that Wrigley Field is overgrown, the show’s ideas and acting interfere with its emotional credibility. If Revolution was interested in exploring what life was like after the clock turned dramatically back on technological development, we could enjoy the sight of the lost world, we could explore the things things they’ve built to replace lost conveniences, the infrastructure that once held society together. Instead, there are pesky questions hanging around the premise. If Ben Matheson knows why the electricity went out, why has he kept silent for fifteen years? Why does electricity work in Grace’s attic if it doesn’t wear anywhere else? Why aren’t people building steam engines? I understand that the show intends to answer these questions, but it’s hard to imagine that the answers will be good enough to justify the irritations of the inconsistencies, or that Tracy Spiridakos, the show’s CW-style lead actress, can provide enough emotional weight to give us consequences beyond the setup.
I’d love science fiction and fantasy shows that both look great and have great setups. But Battlestar Galacticas are few and far between. And apparently they aren’t frequent enough, or big enough hits to convince networks that their shows need to have concepts, visuals, and people who can actually act. Revolution‘s off to a good start, ratings-wise: 11.7 million people tuned in to its pilot, boosted by a lead-in from The Voice. But genre fans shouldn’t let networks buy them off with things that look good but don’t have anything underneath the hood. And if we have to pick one or the other, I’ll take solid worldbuilding and actors who can carry that world on their shoulders over pretty, flimsy pictures.