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Helix is the stoned college sophomore of TV sci-fi

Illustration for article titled Helix is the stoned college sophomore of TV sci-fi
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There’s been a devastating viral outbreak in a remote locale, containing a trapped group of humans. A CDC expert, Dr. Farragut, and his team are dispatched to determine what happened. After realizing the horrific scope of the virus, the team discovers that the local population is hiding more than they’re sharing, and thus begins a haunting mystery. This is how season one of Helix, Syfy’s glorious mess of a show, began, and it’s exactly how season two kicks off as well. Which is fitting, because the series has simultaneously undergone a complete creative reboot, and yet hasn’t changed at all.

Helix is clearly trying to relaunch itself, providing an accessible entry point for new viewers without completely abandoning everything that came before. The result is mostly rehashed narrative beats: It’s doing the same thing it did last time, only more so. Last year had a deadly viral outbreak? More bodies this time! Black bile was gross? Now you get pus-filled growths festering everywhere! (One shot in particular, of pustules branching out of a corpse’s mouth, is truly nauseating.) An Arctic research facility has a mysterious boss? Here’s a remote island where everyone is mysterious!


Season one of Helix was the televised equivalent of taking an appealing-looking meal and slowly pouring it into a Cuisinart. The show was meant to be a real world combination of horror, locked-room mystery, and fun sci-fi soap opera. Over the course of 13 episodes, it steered progressively further off the rails, until the final installments plunged the show almost completely into chaos, killing off most of the characters, and introducing a host of new mysteries and ideas without resolving a single one of the existing threads. No one was more disappointed than The A.V. Club’s Sonia Saraiya, who awarded the last two episodes a D and an F. The show committed the grievous sin of flashing forward almost nine months into the future, without any justification of what had led up to it. Calling it a Hail Mary would be generous.

When the show began, it was focused on a team of CDC researchers, dispatched to an Arctic facility. They were dealing with a virus that turned its victims into a sort of animal-zombie hybrid, spewing black bile into others’ mouths as a means of transmitting their infection. Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell), Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky), Dr. Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), and others who weren’t lucky (unlucky?) enough to make it to season two found themselves hunted by the infected (“vectors,” in the show’s lingo), while racing to discover a cure. In particular, they worked to treat, and eventually save, Alan’s brother Peter (Neil Napier), himself a doctor.

Eventually, the villain was revealed to be the Ilaria Corporation, which lured the CDC there to create an antidote for the virus, and has evil designs on the world—not to mention 500 silver-eyed immortals running the show. The series became a tangled mess of conspiracies, evil corporations, severed heads preserved in ice, and fake log cabins in Arctic basements. If it sounds confusing, it is; the show didn’t know where to take its viral outbreak story and ended up choosing “all of the above” on the checklist of plot possibilities.

Through it all, one element of the show has stood out from the rest, convincing viewers that, even at its most absurd, they were watching something worthwhile: the music. Supervising sound editor David Gertsman should win some kind of award for his use of lighthearted, retro pop wisps throughout this all-portentous-all-the-time nonsense. Helix’s theme—a snippet of Burt Bacharach’s composition “Do You Know The Way To San Jose?”—telegraphs a smart puncturing of the show’s self-seriousness. The new season doubles down on that; so much so, that, in the first five minutes, a character is flat-out asked, “Do you know the way to San Jose?” as a sort of secret password. Subtle, this show is not.


The setting for season two’s outbreak, an island housing a strange society (led by series newcomer Steven Weber), could be promising, but for now is too often ignored in favor of meeting its residents. They’re uninspired—like a warmed-over version of Lost’s Others, with a dash of The Wicker Man’s isolated weirdos. As before, the dialogue is one of the weakest parts of the show. Helix excels at creating eerie landscapes and claustrophobic interiors—it should lean into these strengths, and dial back all the melodramatic word salad. (A character responding, “I can’t tell you that,” in answer to practically any question, is the show’s go-to move.)

The best choice the revamped show makes is substituting one Farragut for the other. Peter has now taken Alan’s place as the head of the CDC research team dispatched to investigate the virus, and Neil Napier projects more complexity and charisma in the first 20 minutes than Billy Campbell did all of last season. (Not that it’s entirely Campbell’s fault: Alan couldn’t have been more bland if he’d been slipped a personality-sapping virus.) Sarah retains all the character weaknesses of the first season, but Julia has been beefed up to such an extent that she commands her own solo storyline, at least for the first couple of episodes. Alan doesn’t even appear in the season opener; he’s referred to in hushed tones, his pursuit of the Ilaria Corporation having turned him into a criminal.


The crux of the issue here is that Helix can’t get away with the same bag of tricks it used to draw viewers in the first time. This is season two, and there’s a boatload of dangling plot threads, a few addressed sporadically, but most of them seemingly dropped, perhaps to be picked up later on when the show wants to goose its story forward a bit. It does make one profound deviation from the structure of last season, however. Halfway through the first episode, the show makes a choice so unexpected, so bold, and so seemingly ludicrous, that it almost earns continued watching just to see what the hell the writers were thinking. To say any more would be to spoil the surprise, but the choice to enact an inferior (and unearned) version of another, richer show’s key storyline is a testament to Helix’s daft “we’ll try anything, only crazier and less justified” attitude. (The above grade is largely earned through the chutzpah of this decision, though the elusive F+ was briefly considered.)

The show still has weighty themes on its mind: the emphasis on scientific discovery distorted for nefarious ends has been upgraded to a broader concern with creation itself, as shown by the season’s tagline, “Play God. Pay the price.” Genetic tampering, both human and plant, plays a key role. But as before, it doesn’t have the focus or wit to explore this in any nuanced way. Helix is the stoned college sophomore of television: full of weighty philosophical notions and fun ideas, but no clue how to explain them or execute its plans. It would probably be best to just return to the first season’s promotional angle: “What the hell is happening on Helix?” Sometimes, truth in advertising is best.


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