Monday, January 24, 2011

Requiem for a TV Show

Because I have no life, I spent all of this past weekend watching all 18 episodes of Caprica on DVD. If you know me, you may remember how huge of a Battlestar Galactica fan I was/am. Even when I wouldn’t miss a Friday night out at the bar with friends, my priority was to catch new episodes when they aired (so much so, I was even late to my own Birthday Party in 2009). Still, when Caprica was beginning on SyFy, I had already made the decision to not get cable TV in my new apartment. As Caprica would be the only cable TV show I wanted to watch (at the time…damn you The Walking Dead…), it didn’t make sense to pay $50 a month just to watch it (a decision that, as it turns out, was rather smart. The show was divided up into two nine episode chunks to be aired months apart. I would have spent considerably more than the $70 for both DVD sets had I gone the cable TV route).

Caprica, if you care, was the prequel series for Battlestar. Prequels apparently being all the rage after George Lucas did such a stellar job with those last three Star Wars movies he put out (seriously, as an aside, can anyone name any ‘prequel’ that’s come out that’s generally been well received? Sure the Star Wars movies made money, but most people thought they sucked. The Underworld prequel kinda fell off everyone’s radar, and Caprica? Well…we’re getting to that). The basis of the show was to introduce to viewers how the Cylons (those dastardly evil robots that went and blew up all of humanity in the Battlestar pilot) not only came into existence, but also how they came to be the evil human killers that they ended up being. This would unfold while telling the story of two grieving families - The Graystones and the Adams, as they struggle with the loss of their daughters, who exist only as avatars in a virtual world after dying in a terrorist attack. Unfortunately, the show failed to find its audience, and Caprica was canceled after airing only 13 of the 18 episodes (which thankfully were included on the DVD set).

Since SyFy announced the end of Caprica last October, there’s been a lot of people playing The Blame Game around the Internet. Fans of the show are crying foul because the week before the cancelation as announced, SyFy revealed plans for a second Battlestar prequel series called Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome (which no one has pointed out how close that title is to Showtime’s original series Spartacus: Blood and Sand, but whatever…). The fans think SyFy axed Caprical prematurely because they had a new spiffy shiny toy to play with; meanwhile, SyFy has blamed low ratings on the cancelation, stating they loved the show and did everything they could to save it. There’s evidence out there floating around to support every claim people make, but what I haven’t seen anywhere is the one feeling I had throughout my entire marathon viewing session: Caprica was a schizophrenic mess of a show.

Like many dramas, Caprica had an ensemble cast. Notable stars included: Eric Stoltz; Esai Morales; and Polly Walker, joined by Paula Malcomson; and Allessandra Torresani. All in all, there were eight lead characters in Caprica, and almost twice as many recurring characters in major roles. When you have successful shows like LOST that juggle almost as many (if not more) cast members, eight leads isn’t really such a bad thing. Hell, Battlestar Galactica had a similarly large cast and it made it through 4 seasons and a couple of movies. The difference with Caprica though was that each of these characters had their own (mostly independent) plotlines that required a genre all of its own.

Eric Stoltz played Daniel Graystone, a wealthy and obsessive industrialist who ran a technology company with a lucrative government contract to produce cybernetic soldiers – the robots that became the Cylons. Esai Morales was Joseph Adama, father of Admiral Bill Adama, who would later command the Galactica. The world he came from, Tauron, was ripe with old world traditions, and organized crime. He was a lawyer, but that was mainly incidental to his role as a member of a Tauron crime syndicate. His storyline mirrored a lot of what you’d come to expect of the Sopranos. Polly Walker’s Sister Clarice Willow, a closeted monotheist in a plural marriage, hid her religious beliefs behind her public life as a worshipper of Athena, and her sinister motives to bring about worship of the One True God was a cause for most of the drama in the show. When the plot of Caprica focused around Willow, you felt like you were watching a version of HBO’s Big Love that focused only on the skeezy prophet character from the compound. Then you had Malcomson who played Dr. Amanda Graystone, wife to Stoltz’s character, who bounced back and forth between her husband’s storyline and Walker’s when she was helping the show’s interplanetary version of the FBI in a mini procedural drama like Criminal Minds or CSI. Only Stoltz’s storyline, and that of his daughter (played by Torresani) felt like true science fiction. Complicating matters even more was the fact that the world Caprica was set in was made to mirror a fictionalized version of Mad Men (Seriously. You had period dress mixed with Robot Soldiers, 1960 style cars on the street while jump ships travelled between worlds; flimsy transparent e-sheets of paper next to newspapers; and all of this taking place in a world where flip style cell-phones from the late 90’s existed side-by-side with rotary pay phones).

While one might argue that the myriad of storylines and genre in Caprica presented a cafeteria approach, offering “something for everyone”, you’d then be ignoring the fact that some things just aren’t for everyone. There’s a reason why some people choose to watch V while others watch CSI, and why The Sopranos and ER weren’t one show. If you don’t like procedural/crime dramas, you don’t watch them, even if something like Big Love is sandwiched in there. And even if someone was wholly invested in the story of Zoe (Torresani) Graystone’s journey to find resurrection for her virtual being in the real world, if the previews for next week’s episode led you to believe that it would mainly focus on the Adamas and their Old World Crime Family, the impetus to tune in may have been turned off.

That isn’t to say that Caprica was a bad show, it wasn’t. I wouldn’t have devoted my weekend to watching it if it had been that painful to watch. However, I truly believe that it cast too wide of a net in the hopes of recapturing the Battlestar audience and new viewers as well. The characters were intriguing, and the hint of answers coupled with the teases we got to some left over Battlestar questions were enough to keep hardcore fans going, but the show got mired in way too much set up. It may be after-the-fact armchair quarterbacking, but off the top of my head, I can think of at least three ways Caprica could have sped things along and gotten more out of its first season:

1.) Graystone’s drama with his rival, and his struggle to keep his company. This was almost a pointless storyline, serving only as a means to get Adama’s crime family tied into Graystone Industries. Of course, in the pilot episode, Graystone had to ask the Tauron Syndicate to steal a vital processing chip from his rival to win the Cylon contract. This right there would have been enough of an impetus to get the Adamas and the Graystones together, but instead that favor was widely ignored until the rival came back into the picture and the storyline got convoluted (the cost of this was about three episodes).

2.) The Adama backstory and Crime Syndicate backstory. As Caprica was meant to be about the rise of the Cylons, the side story that focused on the Adamas ate up a little too much screen time. Every minute of screen time taken up by the Adamas was one that could have been focused on speeding up the main plot. At least one entire episode was consumed with the motivations of Joseph and his brother Samuel (who may actually be one of the most interesting gay characters to ever be introduced into science fiction). As a sub story, it could have (and in my opinion, should have), been planned out to unfold over subsequent seasons.

3.) New Cap City. I’m loathe to include this on this list, because it was my favorite part of the first two-thirds of the show, but it drug on for a really, really long time, and all it really amounted to was a way to get virtual Zoe connected with virtual Tamara (Adama’s dead daughter who was also trapped as a virtual avatar). This was a plot line that also really seemed to have no payoff, so even if the show runners were planning on going somewhere major with the ‘Avenging Angels’ later on, you’re left feeling completely empty with this story.

Sadly, the most riveting moments of Caprica were never aired prior to the notice of cancelation. These are the “Things to Come” flashforward that ended the Season (Series) finale. Probably intended to be a teaser for Seasons 2 and beyond, this three minute segment instead became a “guess what you’ll never see?!” torment. From things like the Cylon robots finding religion to Zoe getting a real body with skin and hair and everything, this showed viewers that far more than what was teased when the series was announced was going to happen (and when you find out in the director’s commentary for the finale that the plan was to have Zoe meet the Final Five from Battlestar, well, that just made me cry a little!). I’ve said before (and firmly believe) that if a network believes in a show (see: the exact opposite of ABC and V), they should never, ever cancel it in its first season. Even the best shows have to start out somewhere, and as we saw with LOST’s second season (and a good deal of its third), even the ‘best’ have their shaky moments. Unfortunately for Caprica, their shaky moments lasted for most of their first season.

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