In You Should Be Watching, the staff of The A.V. Club advocates on behalf of the hundreds of TV shows you’re not watching but should.
Colony, whose third season begins Wednesday, May 2 at 10 p.m. Eastern on USA. The first two seasons can be found currently streaming on Netflix.
When the show began, Earth had already been conquered by intruders from far, far away. The twist: Aside from the massive ships and deadly robotic drones the aliens (nicknamed “Raps”) employ to put down any disturbances, almost no one’s actually seen these creatures. Instead, the world is run by a collaborationist government meant to serve the interest of the extraterrestrials, meaning it’s humans running the dystopian societies that have been carved up in the wake of the invasion, with massive cities sectioned off by even more massive walls.
Will Bowman (Lost’s Josh Holloway) is recruited to serve with Homeland Security to uncover the Resistance, those working to undermine and destroy the collaborator government and fight back against the Raps. What he doesn’t know is that his wife, Katie (Sarah Wayne Callies from The Walking Dead), is one of those Resistance fighters, meaning the two are working against each other in the ongoing struggle between keeping their children safe and fighting the good fight for a world where their kids might one day be free. Of course, if you don’t have time for 23 previous episodes, season three makes for a big transformation and new chapter for you to begin, as (no spoilers for what happens) the Bowmans are now living outside the walls of the L.A. bloc, in a secluded forest cabin. How long things stay that way is another matter entirely.
You should watch Colony because it provides the earthbound version of Battlestar Galactica’s political intrigue
While it may not reach the swooning, space-opera poetry of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, it does take one of that show’s best ideas—that even in the midst of a struggle for the very existence of our species, humans will still end up fighting each other more than the “enemy”—and applies it to the messy everyday realities of people living under an occupation. The series has been rightly praised for how it wraps uncomfortable truths about violence and brutality together with the unsettling nature of surveillance state apparatuses, and how it depicts the way people will either avail themselves of those dangers or rail against them, but more often than not some uneasy combination of the two, just like most of us in our daily lives. And those strange admixtures of conflicting, even contradictory qualities extend to the characters, as well.
Almost no one in this universe is wholly good or wholly bad; our main protagonist, Will, has spent two seasons working a job that gets him branded as a species traitor by members of the Resistance, the group that would normally be the pure voice of idealism and righteousness. Not only that, but the Resistance is quickly shown to be just as full of dangerous, backstabbing manipulators as any transnational authority. Where your sympathies lie will often shift from episode to episode, sometimes more than once within a single installment. Few series currently airing are as smart about showing the ways people will stubbornly cling to power (or grasp for more) even when they know their shortsighted views do vastly more harm to their cause in the long run. If you currently live in a capitalist society, you have some experience with this.
Season one focused on the psychological toll of collaboration, and season two was more explicitly about the cost of violence and what it means to live life in a war zone. Season three is digging deep, but in a new way: The first five episodes explore how communities form among oppressed people, and whether those groups are unavoidably infected by the militaristic ideology that drives resistance.
It’s easy to read about the political allegories and ongoing bleak perspective and get the impression that Colony is a bummer. But while it consistently goes dark in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways, the series is never far from an explosive shootout with soldiers or a clash with alien drones. The show has executed these battles with thrilling staging, often making good use of intimate, Paul Greengrass-like camerawork to keep breaths in throats. Better yet, the writing team nearly always invests character stakes in the battles as well; it means something if a character kills a Homeland Security agent or not, and there are clear repercussions and diverging paths based on the outcome of struggles, meaning there’s a tension and momentum to these action sequences that give them pathos as well as kinetic energy.
In the third season opener alone, there’s a panicky shootout, alien ships soaring overhead, and political machinations that may or may not end up with someone dead. Changing locations from an urban-based environment to the forest environs of life outside has given Colony a renewed sense of purpose, shaking up what was becoming a stifling atmosphere and freeing up the narrative to go in strange new places. It’s no exaggeration to say there’s more plot advancement and forward momentum to the overall narrative in the first three episodes this year than in perhaps all of season two combined, and it’s deeply enjoyable to watch long-planted clues start to bear fruit.
When Colony first began, it seemed like longtime character actor Peter Jacobson’s role was going to be that of the primary antagonist on the show—Alan Snyder, the proxy governor of the Los Angeles bloc blackmailing Will into doing his bidding and ferreting out the Resistance. But it was soon revealed, in a clever bit of complication, that Snyder himself was just another guy trying his best in an impossible situation, a sympathetic ex-professor who genuinely believed he was helping to keep things from getting worse by making the tough choices. His slow relationship with the Bowman family has grown over two seasons, to the point where he now resides with them outside the wall and on the run—even if they don’t necessarily like him all that much. Jacobson makes a character who reads like a slimy little worm on paper into a very funny and relatable presence, the person who lets their own insecurity and fear get the better of them. He’s got some quite good lines—nobody can exclaim, “Jesus Christ!” when startled by another character with quite the same comic timing.
Rather than clumsily shoehorning it into the plot or relying on the sometimes dodgy CGI afforded by a cable TV budget, Colony focuses its sense of futuristic fears on the tech and architecture of an advanced race, rather than giving us little green men. Imposing security checkpoints and drones not all that far removed from current technology helps to sell the claustrophobia of the world, and keeping the appearances of the mysterious Raps to a minimum means they’re extraordinarily effective when deployed.
That’s not to say the series isn’t capable of some excellent eye candy. Season three kicks off with an exciting crash sequence that leads to Will and Snyder sneaking through the forest to try and assess the situation without being discovered by drones, and the resulting discovery is like something out of a Star Wars film. Similarly, episode two catches up with Broussard (Tory Kittles, doing great work), Katie’s old Resistance contact and an ex-military badass who is trying to do right in what’s left of the L.A. bloc. His thousand-yard-stare often comes into conflict with the enemy, and delivers some crackling conflagrations that show off the series’ penchant for cool-looking drone explosions.
Unlike many shows that take the better part of their first season to build a world, introduce characters, and slowly figure out how to make the audience care about both of those things, Colony emerged relatively fully formed, with readily engaging characters and a quick wit, smartly deploying genre tropes while giving them clever twists more often than not. While individual episodes can vary in quality, the overall story is stronger than many, and right out of the gate it’s done the challenging, interesting thing where it could have played it safer. Season two improved on the first, and now the latest is doing all the humanity-on-the-run stuff that USA’s last crack at such material, Falling Skies, could only fitfully generate. It’s a good time to join Colony; it’s got drama to burn and alien ships to burn down.