If a cable drama does something daring in the forest, but no one’s watching, is it still great TV? This is the challenge presented by “Colony,” the USA drama about life under alien rule that debuts its third season Wednesday evening.
It’s also a show not a whole lot of people seem to be watching, which is understandable, as “Colony” legitimately rivals “The Handmaid’s Tale” for bleakness. (To be honest, “Handmaid’s” is the lighter of the two series — it certainly makes more time for jokes.)
In Season 3, we’re still following the Bowman family (parented by Josh Holloway and Sarah Wayne Callies, both of whom make the desperation of their current situation feel raw and grounded). But instead of the jarring disconnect between sunny Los Angeles and the harsh rule of the occupying government, the Bowmans have fled outside the city limits, with former Proxy Governor Alan Snyder (Peter Jacobson) along for the ride.
From the very first shots of the Bowmans’ forest refuge, it’s pretty clear that the production relocated to Vancouver for this season, and the grey raininess permeates not just the screen, but the general tone of Season 3. The first six episodes prove even more dour than Season 2, as life in the woods isn’t exactly idyllic. There’s an ever-present threat of alien invaders, whose people-killing technology remains as advanced and terrifying as ever. (The way the various robotic models of invaders can blast human bodies into fine red mist is haunting.)
When they’re on their own, still as a family, the Bowmans show that these deep bonds aren’t just a reason to survive — they’re how we can survive. But the family dynamics aren’t as front and center this time, taking a backseat to the twists and tidbits of information that get doled out over the course of the season so far.
The introduction of a few new characters, including Peyton List as a doctor/freedom fighter and the briefest glimpse of Wayne Brady as an engineer involved deeply with the creation of the new ruling government is welcome (especially given the body count at the end of last season). Meanwhile, the world of the show feels bigger than ever, and we even get some real answers as to why the aliens invaded our planet in the first place.
However, all of those elements come with a cost. Since the beginning, “Colony” has been a show rich with fascinating elements, blending family drama with genre tropes, and challenging us with tough questions about how one might handle the abrupt takeover of society by an outside force — a premise which in early 2016 (when Season 1 premiered) felt like a modern take on life during historical occupations like Vichy France… and in 2018, feels very different.
“Relevant” might technically be a stretch, since at this point in “Colony,” very little remains of what might feel familiar to the average American. But the tradeoff is the ability to tell stories about the shifting of power in unstable governments, as well as the refugee crises that are very real all around the world.
But as things on “Colony” have gotten darker, and the circumstances more dire, the show’s interest in exploring the moral questions invoked originally by the premise has faded in the face of the ongoing desperate quest to survive. And it’s good that the show is evolving, finding new storytelling avenues — if we were looking at another season spent debating the sorts of moral compromises demanded by this sort of regime, it might grow tiresome. That said, the central question of the show has become “What would you do to protect your family?” and the answer is “Anything.” It leads to some tough dramatic moments, but the complexity is lacking.
As a story of survival, though, “Colony” remains the sort of engrossing television that gets lost in the mix, due to all the other captivating television out there. (The fact that it made it to a third season is itself a captivating survival tale, when you think about it.) It’s often tough viewing that could use some comic relief beyond Snyder’s sarcasm, but what’s next for the Bowmans outside of the wall has us hooked. It’d just be nice if in the process of making this drama feel real, it still found room for a little hope.
“Colony” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on USA Network.