Thursday, September 22, 2005

TV: Threshold

Despite liking most of the actors in Threshold -- and it truly is a fine cast, with Carla Gugino, Brent Spiner, Peter Dinklage, and Charles S. Dutton -- I wasn't expecting to like the show. It's just another science fiction-y, "big mystery" show trying to ride the coattails of Lost, I thought, and there certainly appears to be no shortage of that kind of thing this season, including this CBS entry, NBC's Surface, and ABC's Invasion.

But then the advance reviews started coming in, and they were mostly glowing. So I began to think that maybe they had gotten it right. I began thinking that they had actually created a show smart and thrilling enough to be worthy of these actors. I got my hopes up.

My mistake.

It's not awful. But neither is it as good as the advance word. It fits squarely into this season's overall theme of determined mediocrity.

Gugino plays Dr. Molly Caffrey, "a government contingency analyst whose job is to devise response plans for worst-case scenarios" (according to the CBS website). Her contingency plan code-named "Threshold" is activated when contact is made with an alien lifeform -- apparently a hostile one. Deputy National Security Advisor Roc comes to tell her she needs to put her plan into action: "You just became the most important person on the planet," he says. What a drama queen.

She assembles her team, including microbiologist Spiner, linguistics expert Dinklage, and physicist Rob Benedict (whom I remember as the guy getting killed by zombies on Alias last season). Together with "freelance" agent Cavennaugh, played by some guy I've never heard of, they fly out to the naval vessel that made contact with the E.T., and find most of the crew missing or dead, except for Tom Cruise's cousin, who is even creepier here as Gunneson than he was last year on Lost as Ethan. Turns out he's been altered by the aliens, and now is super-strong and nearly invulnerable. Hilarity ensues!

There are a lot of things the show does right. The alien threat, as represented by Gunneson and the other infected crewmen, is frightening and mysterious. The actual alien (or alien craft), seen mostly via a crewman's videotape, is unique and interesting, a hovering ball of fractals constantly expanding and folding in on itself. And the fact that three of Gugino's team, including herself, may be partially infected by the alien as well, is a clever twist, strengthening the connection between her and the E.T. and giving her certain insights into its purpose (including a dream of a forest made of glass, a dream shared by all three of her alien-infected teammates).

But a lot else doesn't work for me. The scientists make a lot of ridiculous leaps of logic, it seems to me (even if all of those leaps are conveniently correct, as required by the script). The physicist instantly jumps to the conclusion that the alien craft inhabits four dimensions (or more), and the linguistics expert takes a fractal image burned into the ship's computer monitors and determines that the aliens have triple-helix DNA (one better than our measly double-helix). Both of those ideas are interesting, but the steps taken to reach them seem shaky at best. There's something to be said for plowing ahead like this in order to keep the plot in motion, but there just seems to be a lot of shoddy science going on here.

And the human characters aren't very interesting or well-defined. Gugino is a lot less effective here than in the late great Karen Sisco from a couple seasons back. Plus, she's got a mysterious past! Why does she create worst-case survival scenarios? Because she's already lived through one, she tells us. Also, her father is missing. There's too much attention given to future character reveals, and not enough spent on making the character interesting now. Giving her a dog, and a fridge full of food containers with neatly-typed labels on them, isn't quite enough.

Cavennaugh is even more mysterious than Gugino, but he's otherwise a blank. Spiner is kind of cynical, and that's about all I get from that character. Benedict is neurotic. Dutton is stern and concerned. Dinklage's character is the most compelling so far, because he reaches the greatest extremes in two directions -- he's the sleaziest of the bunch, with a weakness for "gambling, booze, and strippers" (as Dutton helpfully informs Gugino during the recruiting process) and a penchant for directing lecherous come-ons to Gugino and dismissive put-downs to the rest of the team, but he's also allowed to be the most vulnerable, first as the subject of threats and bullying from Cavennaugh when he tries to leave the team, and later stricken with fear during an assault by one of the alien infectees.

And the action scenes, while mostly effective, have a tendency to blatantly telegraph their surprises. Gugino is home alone, and when she opens her refrigerator door, she's squeezed way over to the edge of the screen, and the door obscures everything else. A lifetime of watching horror movies tells me that when she closes that door, someone is going to be standing behind it. Later, Benedict has a dream that he's attacked. He wakes up, and has a "Whew, only a dream" moment -- but hey, he's off to the side of the screen, with the car window taking up the rest of the shot. Something's coming through that window!

The show has potential, I'll give it that. I think the strength of the cast will allow them to create real characters out of the sketches presented to us in these first two episodes. And I think the aliens have promise as well, especially if they bring back Gunneson (who is shot and removed to custody at the end of the premiere), or continue to cast actors as strong as him as the infected humans. As to whether I stick around to see them achieve that potential (or fail to achieve it), I've already got an absurdly full TV-watching schedule. It's questionable at best.

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