Review: SyFy’s game-infused ‘Defiance’ TV series falls short of its revolutionary potential

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Defiance has the potential to forever change the way television and video games entwine. Rather than spinning a successful TV show into a half-baked video game – or vice versa – the story of the Defiance universe plays out in parallel in both a video game and a TV series (See our Defiance game review). When a massive event plays out in the TV show – the online game world will change simultaneously. You’re literally playing within the show – or watching a show set within a game, depending on how you look at it.

Yet for all the originality in its premise, Defiance still gives off the inescapable sense that you’ve seen it all before. The show can potentially overcome this as it runs on, but only if its producers embrace the potential of its unconventionality. Until then, it hovers somewhere just slightly above average; entertaining enough to keep your attention, but not so much that it will redefine the genre or even stand out among its peers.

Besides its unconventional relationship with gaming, Defiance draws originality from its setting: an Earth unlike any we’ve seen before. After a failed attempt at alien immigration movement that led to several brutal conflicts, the Earth was partially terraformed, making it nearly unrecognizable. The survivors, eight species including humans, are attempting to coexist on the new planet.

There hasn’t been anything quite like this setup on TV or film before. The characters, however, are a different story.

They all fall into easily understandable archetypes, from the roguish yet courageous hero, to the warrior woman with a tough shell covering a gentle soul, to the do-gooder mayor. Science-fiction fans will recognize all the tropes. There’s still room for dramatic change, but after four episodes, there haven’t been too many surprises.

The cliche writing dulls an otherwise sharp ensemble of actors. True Blood’s Grant Bowler leads the show as Joshua Nolan. Nolan and his surrogate daughter Irisa, a troubled but deadly warrior of alien descent  (played under a fair amount of prosthetics by MirrorMask’s Stephanie Leonidas), stumble upon the city of Defiance, kicking off the events of the series.

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Players of the Defiance game will recognize both Nolan and Irisa. Their in-game missions are little more than side quests with few long-term ramifications, but they do leave the game and head right into the TV show. There is even a bit of the game’s loot that appears in the show. Both the game’s developers and the showrunners have repeatedly claimed that the game and the show will have a good deal of back and forth. This could end up being little more than a gimmick, with the odd item appearing in both, or a random character leaving one platform and appearing briefly in the other. It’s an ambitious idea, but one that probably won’t have a huge impact.

While the game takes place in the Bay Area, the city of Defiance, where the show is set, is located on the ruins of St. Louis. Its founding, along with many of the bigger points of the history of the world, will probably be sprinkled out of the weeks and optimistically years. There is a lot of story waiting to be told.  

It isn’t long before Nolan finds himself as the lawman in town, with Irisa reluctantly helping him. Despite the relatively peaceful coexistence among the various races in Defiance, there are troubles bubbling below the surface. Chief among them is the rivalry between Datak Tarr (played by Tony Curran) and Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene). McCawley’s daughter is in love with Tarr’s son, spurring interspecies bigotry mostly stemming from McCawley. Tarr and his Machiavellian wife, on the other hand, encourage the relationship in order to have a hand in McCawley’s mining business (and plot McCawley’s untimely demise).

Although Greene is a reliable actor, his character is still undefined. At one moment he is a loving father, the next he is a ruthless opportunist. The two could coexist, but Greene plays the role as too likable to really have a believable evil streak, which makes him seem foolish. Beyond that, he – like most characters in Defiance – just isn’t that original or engrossing. He reacts to events rather than causes them, which means he is constantly on the defensive in some ways. And he’s not alone.

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The majority of the characters are defined by their actions rather than their personalities. It’s early in the show still, but with such an impressive cast that also includes Julie Benz, Fionnula Flanagan, and Mia Kirshner, the characters are all very basic models for their various roles.

For example, Curran’s Tarr is the town’s schemer and borderline crime boss. He is one of the most compelling characters on the show, and yet also highlights one of its greatest flaws. Tarr has a trace of Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen from Deadwood in him, but the show seems afraid to embrace that complexity. He is a leader and a killer, but he also comes across as conniving rather than filled with conviction. He is a bad guy, but a mostly harmless one.

Despite a colorful background that’s only hinted at, Tarr is only as deep as what you see. The show seems afraid to go any further than it already has with the setting, and so characters like Tarr are tame. Even the dialog throughout is generic.

Only four hours of the show have been released so far (the two-hour pilot and the two episodes proceeding it), but there haven’t been any stories as compelling as the setting. The pilot sees Nolan forced to rally the town together to stop a threat. After that, a religious ceremony puts people at odds while a manhunt occurs. The next episode takes them to the ruins of St. Louis, but they do so to track down someone who has been killing townsfolk. Despite the originality of the settings, none of the stories are anything you haven’t seen before. Strip away the aliens and weird mismatch of technology and you could place the show in the Wild West without missing a beat.

Yet despite the wasted potential, the show is entertaining. There are some inconsistencies with the effects, design, and makeup that you can overlook, but it otherwise looks good. If Defiance continues down the road it is on, it will remain an average show, as many of SyFy’s show’s tend to be. But if it decides to truly embrace the uniqueness of its setting and premise, then Defiance could be something special. Until then though, it remains an enjoyable, but uninspired show.

Also check out our Defiance game review.

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