Colony is a series full of pitched gunfights, tactical espionage, and dense chunks of exposition, but the show’s most effective piece of scene-setting revolves around a single egg. Will Sullivan (Josh Holloway) is preparing breakfast for two of his children, Bram (Alex Neustaedter) and Gracie (Isabella Crovetti-Camp), when his hand slips. Shells, white, and yolk explode and spill out onto his kitchen floor. No big deal, right? Who hasn’t made a mess before their first hit of caffeine has a chance to take hold?
Will is totally rattled. This is an egg that means more than the few seconds and strips of paper towel it’ll take to clean it up. It’s a precious commodity. When his wife Katie (Sarah Wayne Callies) finds him wiping up the floor, he’s penitent. It doesn’t make much sense until the camera pans out, revealing more of the Sullivans’ home and their Los Angeles neighborhood. Their backyard fence is topped with barbed wire; a few miles away, a mammoth wall has sliced the metropolitan area into isolated pieces. Colony devotes immense amounts of time and energy to rendering life in an occupied state over its first six episodes, but I keep coming back to Holloway sweating over that dropped egg. The show’s rare glimpses at colonization’s quotidian impacts are more impactful than all of its military pyrotechnics.
Colony is the newest drama from Carlton Cuse, the veteran showrunner who brought Lost to life alongside Damon Lindelof and has since moved on to shows like FX’s The Strain. It’s also the first hour-long series to premiere on USA Network since Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot, the newly-minted Golden Globe winner for Best Drama. There’s a dash of that show’s techno-paranoia sprinkled over Colony, one that’s most prominent in the ever-present menace of the drones that float and sniff around the city. But Cuse and protégé Ryan J. Condal’s project has more to do with series like Under the Dome and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle than Mr. Robot’s code-drenched machination. Colony is an explicit, straightforward occupation allegory, one whose "foreign" invaders only matter as a manifestation of oppression. (You never see them, and it’s probably better that way.)
Cuse and Condal use Colony to explore what happens to ordinary people when an antagonistic regime put the screws to them. Some people believe collaboration is the only way to mitigate total societal destruction, and others believe resistance is the only noble path. The great majority of the colony’s inhabitants are just trying to figure out how to maintain some semblance of a normal life. (One of the show’s finer touches is its vision of a car-free Los Angeles. Everyone rides bikes because gasoline is hard to find, and there’s nowhere to go anyway.) Though its moralism is sneakily complicated, Colony can’t help but eventually settle into a procedural groove. An accident forces Will into revealing his identity and expertise, and he’s put to work for his oppressors against his will. The work is complicated by his family life; it usually involves violence; he finds a new tail to chase at the end of every episode.
The show has a workmanlike quality that aligns nicely with the rest of Cuse’s work. He’s made TV for over two decades, flitting between pilots, one-offs, and multi-season hits, and he understands the fundamentals of a satisfying show. The world of Colony is rendered artificially small by the barriers containing the colony’s residents, and that gives Cuse & co. an excuse to engineer exciting collisions and one-on-one conversations. (Many of these take place in the Southern-themed bar Will and Katie operate, its name a hat-tip to William Faulkner.) By the show’s sixth episode, its web of relationships, allegiances, and lies has become taut enough to render most scenes hyper-tense.
It’s solid construction, and Colony has just as much trust in the strength of its lead couple. Holloway and Callies are the bedrock holding the show up, taking a marriage that feels genuinely loving and rooted and spiking it with the sort of spousal tension you’d expect from The Americans. Holloway’s Will is a softer Sawyer, a Southern gentleman with a rough shell, a kind heart, and a penchant for white T-shirts. It’s still a potent cocktail. Callies has to walk a tricky line, balancing marital and familial duty and perceived moral obligation. You can see the gears turning in her brain every time she has to make a tough choice. Showing the work doesn’t always play well on screen, but it makes sense here. They have palpable physical and emotional chemistry, and when Holloway looks at Callies out of the corner of his eye and growls, "I love you" — this happens at least once an episode — there’s real heat to it.
Holloway and Callies’ strength matters, because Colony’s other characters aren’t much more than tools Cuse and Condal use to elucidate the show’s morality. Will’s sharp, savvy boss makes a utilitarian case for acquiescence by invoking the Iraq War; the show’s freedom fighters are just as calculating, bloodthirsty, and morally bankrupt as the people helping to subjugate them. If you’re coming into the show hoping for strange, seductive mystery based on Cuse’s history with Lost, you should prepare for disappointment. The difference between Cuse and his former co-showrunner Lindelof is only becoming more clear with time: the former kept the machine running, the latter spun up the spectacle. (If you give Colony a try and find yourself wanting its exact opposite, you need only look to The Leftovers.)
By the time Colony’s world begins to take shape, it’s clear it’s not that interesting. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any enthusiasm for the intricacies of inter-colony bureaucracy or even the state of the country outside the show’s Los Angeles enclave. Instead, I cared about the show’s characters, their well-being, and their newfound appreciation for coffee and whisky in a post-occupation world. (Less forgivable: Bram’s insane name-brand enthusiasm for a pair of Sennheiser headphones in the show’s second episode. A low point for product placement!) The show is just good enough to make you think about what’d you value under similar conditions. If it keeps its focus on its characters and the way occupation changes their lives, it’ll remain worth watching.