For all the hype for Future-Men-in-Dinosaur-Times drama Terra Nova this week (see the TV preview in this week’s paper), the show itself premiered to less-than-impressive ratings and a lot of mockery from critics. Yet, this type of show — the next “next Lost” — has pretty much always suffered from many of the same problems. Yes, there was hype (and considerable flaws) for Flashforward, for Falling Skies, for The Event. Yet, I want Terra Nova to succeed, to become an awesome show. The 6-year-old-who-loves-dinosaurs that resides in all of us demands it.
1. Bring on the vibrant characters. I’ve made this point before. Let’s call it the Joss Whedon Principle: The more sci-fi or fantasy concepts play into a show, the more interesting the characters need to be to compensate. Most writers seem to think it’s the opposite — that the star battles, dragons, or dinosaurs will distract an audience from the bland characters.
Maybe that works in movies. But here, on TV, it’s the opposite. All the special effects can drown out subtlety. So go big. Bring on your best character-actors. Give everyone interesting quirks. Take the most fascinating, odd people you know, and place their personalities in the dead-boring roles you’ve designed for them. Personality — beyond just the choices the character makes — is what we tune into TV for. Even one great character helps. That's why a show like House has lasted so long. That's what makes Fringe.
With the exception of Gruff General, nearly every single lead actor in Terra Nova seems like they’re trying to be the lead from Avatar. And nobody, absolutely nobody, was talking about how great the lead was. Because of budget and because of the challenge of continuing to write many, many hours for one set of characters, all TV needs to be character-based.
2. Go back to the future
Alyssa Rosenberg, TV critic for Think Progress, found the dystopic future at the beginning of the pilot — rife with overpopulation and fascism — far more interesting than the same-old-but-with-dinosaurs world of the Terra Nova colony. I’m a little more skeptical, but there’s a key point here: The contrast — and the interplay — between the two worlds is a notion with far more potential than “what if people had to fight dinosaurs?” Currently, however, the travel is only one way. But what if it wasn’t? What if you had a world crammed with despair and desperation going back and forth between a dangerous world of hope and plenty? That would raise interesting questions.
3. Find better excuses for chaos. Many of the complaints about Terra Nova have been directed at the whiny kid — the one who hates his dad and puts the whole camp in danger through stupid mischief. This was also an issue with Falling Skies — stupidity and impulsiveness never make compelling drivers of plot. You know why fellow dinosaur disaster Jurassic Park worked? Because while Nedry was stupid, he wasn’t driven by impulse. He was driven by greed. So let chaos befall the camp. Let it be because of necessity, because of betrayal, because of political differences, because of rational action. Use Battlestar Galactica as your guide. For all its flaws, its plot drivers felt real, felt powerful, and felt provocative.
4. Flesh out the family dynamic. Family dynamics have a bad rap. And seeing how they were frustrating to watch on shows like The Unit and No Ordinary Family, their skepticism is understandable. But the best shows — like Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights — have used the family to drive conflict, establish stakes, and develop its characters. Yet despite Terra Nova's focus on family (as detailed by the A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff and Rowan Kaiser), their relationship doesn’t yet feel real. Imagine how much better this show could be with Coach Taylor doing the raptor-killing.
5. Imply dinosaurs more often than showing them. It’s a matter of budget. It’s expensive to buy and train a realistic-looking Apatosaurus. But more than that, it’s a matter of suspense. Jaws was great because you didn’t always see the shark. Signs worked until you saw the full alien. The unknown might not be showy, but it’s always more suspenseful. It’s what Hitchcock taught us long ago. The Hays Code became his greatest asset.