Terra Nova was usually described as an ambitious TV series. But it wasn’t, really. The main narrative combined a C-grade time travel story that would make Ray Bradbury chortle dismissively, a D-grade gritty reboot of Lost in Space that couldn’t even find space for a funny robot, and a Z-grade conspiracy plotline written specifically for people who thought FlashForward could’ve used more conspiracy plotlines. However, Terra Nova cost an insane amount of money, so I guess you could say that it was “ambitious,” in the sense that it’s ambitious to try to build an elevator to the moon using styrofoam and Elmer’s glue.
But not every show needs to reinvent the wheel of the modern TV drama. Theoretically, setting aside any question of writing or acting or theeeemes, man, the joy of Terra Nova should have been the project’s sheer bigness. When you watch a Transformers movie, even if your eyes are bleeding because of Michael Bay’s utter inability to obey even the most basic rules of visual storytelling, you can’t help but be captivated by the sheer amount of money onscreen. Modern blockbuster films are so insanely expensive that, if we knew how much they actually cost, we’d all become Marxists with mohawks out of national shame. When you pay your way into Transformers, or Pirates of the Caribbean, or (probably) John Carter, you’re not getting a ticket to watch a movie; you’re getting a two-and-a-half-hour pass to swim in a money bin.
The problem, then, was simple: Terra Nova looked terrible. The two-hour pilot might have been one of the most expensive in history, but at a reported $14 million, it still can’t compare to a typical two-hour blockbuster movie. And boy, was it struggling. The show led with dinosaurs that looked stolen from a Syfy movie. The show’s future-past colony had a big fence that seemed purposefully designed to make breaking in as easy as possible. Dear god, just look at what they’re wearing in that picture at the top of the post! Is that hockey gear? Terra Nova was basically Marge in that one Simpsons episode where she tries joining a country club by pretending to be rich, and she has to keep altering the same suit over and over again. It was a TV show that was embarrassed to be a TV show.
For all the talk about how much more visually stimulating television has become in this era of HD, the medium is still fundamentally built on writing and good old non-digital human performance. Most good-looking TV shows make their relative cheapness a virtue. Lost‘s pilot cost almost as much as Terra Nova‘s, but Lost kept its particular monster offscreen for a long, long time. Game of Thrones, like Rome before it, mostly skips battle scenes to focus on intense, well-crafted dialogue and/or nudity. Battlestar Galactica and Mad Men both reuse sets constantly, but with distinctive and addictive visual styles: Vérite docudrama and Hitchcockian formalism, respectively. Breaking Bad famously shoots in Albuquerque because of the hefty tax break — “Come to Albuquerque, the Vancouver of the Southwest!” — but that show has turned the New Mexico landscape into a barren neo-Western wasteland.
The demise of Terra Nova feels a bit like when a multi-billionaire runs for political office and loses, and everyone pats themselves on the back and says proudly, “You still can’t buy an election in America.” Nowadays, even if you are able to buy yourself a blockbuster movie, you still can’t buy your way to TV success. The audience still decides. And we know the difference between ambition and stupid dinosaurs.
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