Defiance (2013) – Episodes 1-6 – Created by Rockne S. O’Bannon, Kevin Murphy, and Michael Taylor – Starring Grant Bowler, Julie Benz, Stephanie Leonidas, Tony Curran, Jaime Murray, Graham Greene, and Mia Kirshner.
I’ve downshifted on writing reviews for the summer, but I can’t let DEFIANCE slide past without a few comments. So here they are:
Watch. This. Show.
I added the show to my Hulu queue because it’s a sci-fi show but I didn’t have much hope for it because it’s a SyFy show. Plus, apparently there’s a MMORPG attached to it and I don’t care. I didn’t get around to watching it until a couple nights ago, when the pilot was nearing it’s last few days of availability and figured I might as well check it out because boredom / end of the semester / nothing else to do.
By the end of the first episode I was hooked, warts and all.
Any genre show is derivative of previous genre shows, of course, and there are plenty of echoes here, of everything from Firefly to Farscape to Terra Nova to Eureka to Babylon 5. The key to a genre show’s success isn’t how many echoes it calls down, but how well it synthesizes its influences and converts it into something unique and wholly realized.
DEFIANCE does this beautifully.
The show takes its set-up cues from Babylon 5 and Eureka. From the beloved J. Michael Straczynski drama, DEFIANCE is set in a politically-driven world in a post-war era. The war ended in something of a draw, with the aliens and humans now sharing a post-apocalyptic setting. Even with seven different alien species walking around, DEFIANCE creates an America infinitely more believable than the NBC turd, Revolution, which has a world that feels more staged than lived-in. Set in the city of Defiance (the renamed city of St. Louis), this world is dirty and unkempt and dangerous but there are people still striving for decency. Where Revolution has characters in power because they seemingly have the nicest coats, in DEFIANCE, people are in power either because they’re willing to scratch and claw to take what they can, or, in the case of newly appointed Mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz), because no one else wants the job enough to take it.
From SyFy’s biggest hit, DEFIANCE borrows the “old sheriff dies, new stranger gets hired as sheriff” bit. Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) and his adopted alien daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas) are scavenging out in the Badlands (basically, all the open spaces between cities) when they get stomped on by some Irathient raiders. Irisa is also Irathient and we find out that Nolan rescued her as a child and raised her as best he could. They are rescued by Defiance’s “lawkeeper” (because calling him “the sheriff” isn’t sci-fi enough, apparently) and brought in and by the end of the pilot episode, that dude is dead and Nolan has been convinced to take his place.
Nolan is a great protagonist because he’s cut from the Mal Reynolds/Han Solo mold, yet given the authority of being the lawkeeper. He was one of the “Defiant” who threw down their weapons during the war, which helped inspire the world to go, “Yeah, let’s stop fighting and rename cities,” but he’s far from a golden boy hero. There are times over the course of the six episodes where Nolan feels like he’s doing something just because the plot needs him to do it – he can be amoral enough to regularly shack up with the town’s preeminent prostitute, Kenya (Mia Kirshner), who owns the bar and brothel, NeedWant, yet moral enough to try and put a stop to the Castithian practice of publicly torturing a man for bringing shame to himself and family. As the show evolves, however,
Grant Bowler is fantastic as Nolan. He’s one of those actors you’re convinced you’ve seen before in something, but in looking at his credits … nope. The overall casting on DEFIANCE is pretty remarkable, though. While the producers cast two relative unknowns (at least to me) in Bowler and Leonidas, check out the rest of the main cast: Graham Greene, Tony Curran, Jaime Murray, Mia Kirshner, and Julie Benz. Curran and Murray play a husband and wife Castithian couple, which means they spend all their time in pure white make-up that totally obscures the fact that they’re Tony Curran and Jaime Murray.
With really solid acting across the board, DEFIANCE also benefits from some really good writing. There’s an overall story here, but it’s the story of the town itself, meaning that individual episodes are largely stand-alone stories that inform that larger plot without requiring that you’ve seen everything that’s come before it. I wonder if one of the ways the producers were able to get name actors was to minimize their involvement – it’s not unusual for Jaime Murray to play a big role in one episode and then be absent the next. Smart producers could arrange their shooting schedule to minimize the time these people need to be on location.
Curran and Greene are the Londo and G’Kar of DEFIANCE, and every scene they’re in gives the show a solid political foundation. Unlike Revolution, which used emotions to fuel all of the (melo)drama, DEFIANCE uses survival and politics. In the six episodes or so of Revolution that I managed to sit through before giving up, I never felt like anyone was ever really in any actual trouble. Bad guys didn’t seem to capture good guys to do bad things to them, but just so they could be rescued later on. Only Giancarlo Esposito made his character feel real, while over here in DEFIANCE, every main character feels like a fully-realized being. That’s one of the benefits of using politics as a main engine for generating stories – it allows the personal motivations of the characters to become intertwined with something meatier than just their own personal wants and desires.
It’s Jaime Murray, though, who owns every scene she’s in, which makes it a bit frustrating that, once again, Syfy puts her on a show but keeps her reined in as a secondary player. The only reason she shouldn’t have a bigger role in DEFIANCE is if Syfy was finally giving H.G. Wells her own show.
Syfy’s already greenlit a second season of DEFIANCE and for a show that I was barely aware of two days ago, I’m thrilled with the news. This is good, smart, sci-fi television.
When he’s not talking to other writers, Mark Bousquet is doing some creative writing himself. He is the author of multiple novels and collections, including the recently released The Haunting of Kraken Moor, Gunfighter Gothic, Stuffed Animals for Hire, Dreamer’s Syndrome, Harpsichord and the Wormhole Witches, and Adventures of the Five. He has also published a review collection entitled Marvel Comics on Film, which covers every cinematic and TV movie based on a superhero from the House of Ideas. A complete listing of all his work can be found at his Amazon author page.