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Alien Dramas Invade Fall Network Season


I'm Alex Chadwick. This is DAY TO DAY.

Extraterrestrials are landing. It's the new fall TV season this week. It looks like a mass invasion. Three different shows, including tonight's new NBC series "Surface," depict the arrival of aliens. So what's going on? Here's DAY TO DAY TV critic Andrew Wallenstein with an explanation.


First things first. Put down that glass of water right now. Chances are, there may be aliens floating in it. Now don't take it from me. Just watch any of three new series that all have the same odd premise: Alien life forces take root in various oceans or rivers around the globe before making it to land. Tonight is NBC's turn. "Surface" is like Steven Spielberg's greatest hits condensed into one hour, mingling elements of "Jaws," "E.T." and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." In this scene, oceanographer Laura Daughtery, played by Lake Bell, radios back to mission control about what she thinks she sees from inside a submersible.

(Soundbite of "Surface")

Ms. LAKE BELL: (As Laura Daughtery) You guys getting anything red on radar?

Unidentified Man #1: Negative, Mystic(ph), we--wait, check that. We're picking up a blip off starboard. Wait. Uncheck that. Screen's clear. What's going on?

WALLENSTEIN: While NBC sets its story in the Pacific, CBS sticks to the Atlantic for its series "Threshold." It follows a team of scientists on the case of a military ship attacked by an otherworldly force. And then there's ABC, which decides to put its aliens in shallower waters, the Florida Everglades, for its own series, "Invasion." Now you'd expect three shows about the same thing would cancel each other out, but surprisingly, all three are among the best of the season's new shows. "Threshold," in particular, takes the spook factor furthest.

(Soundbite of "Threshold")

Unidentified Man #2: This image was captured by our Cheyenne Mountain facility. You're looking at the heat bloom of an unidentified object entering Earth's orbit from deep space at 2200 hours. At approximately 2212, the object made a number of course corrections.

Unidentified Man #3: Course corrections?

Unidentified Man #2: That's right, Admiral. We believe it's under extraterrestrial control.

WALLENSTEIN: So why is everyone doing all these alien shows anyway? You could say they're all blatant rip-offs of one of last season's biggest hits, the ABC series "Lost." "Lost" follows a band of stranded plane crash survivors contending with all sorts of strange beings. Only those creatures stay dry on the island instead of wading in from offshore. But there's something deeper going on here. Science fiction has always used metaphor to probe real social issues. "Twilight Zone" and even campy old "Star Trek" transplanted explosive subjects, like racial tension, to fantastical realms.

By the same token, think about these alien shows. Unseen forces storm the mainland US from an unspecified foreign territory and disaster follows. Clearly, we're talking about terrorism. These shows play on our anxieties over impending doom without any pesky political ramifications. That we get more than enough of from the kind of programming that never seems to get canceled: the TV news.

CHADWICK: NBC's "Surface" premieres tonight. Andrew Wallenstein is an editor for the Hollywood Reporter and TV critic for DAY TO DAY.

I'm Alex Chadwick with more of DAY TO DAY just ahead. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Wallenstein
Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for NPR's Day to Day. He is also an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, where he covers television and digital media out of Los Angeles. Wallenstein is also the co-host of the weekly TV Guide Channel series Square Off. His essay on Holocaust films was published in Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass), and he has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Business Week. He has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.