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Syfy's Defiance a visual plus but often an audio minus

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Left to right, the right and wrong sides on Defiance. Syfy photos

Premiering: Monday, April 15th at 8 p.m. (central) on Syfy
Starring: Grant Bowler, Julie Benz, Stephanie Leonidas, Tony Curran, Jaime Murray, Graham Greene, Mia Kirshner, Jesse Rath, Nicole Munoz, Trenna Keating
Produced by: Kevin Murphy, Michael Taylor, Rockne O’Bannon

The ripping good special effects of Syfy’s Defiance harken to Fox’s recently failed and likewise futuristic Terra Nova, which also popped the eyes.

In each case, the bigger your DVD screen, the better. Another shared trait: the scripts and story lines tend to be cliche-heavy and sense-dulling predictable.

But Defiance, premiering Monday, April 15th with a two-hour episode, is decidedly different in one new worldly respect. Syfy, owned by NBC Universal, is touting it as a “transmedia event” being launched “as both an original series and a multi-platform video game . . . Each week viewers will follow an immersive character drama set in the boom-town of Defiance, which sits atop the ruins of St. Louis, while in the game, players will experience the new frontier of the San Francisco Bay area.”

Furthermore, “events in the show will impact the game, and events in the game will impact the show, creating an unprecedented interactive storytelling experience,” according to Syfy publicity materials.

Frankly, that sounds like a little too much work. But go for it if you’d like while these spaces stick to a review of just the show.

Here are the basics. A huge incursion of seven different alien races led to a “Terraformed Earth” 33 years into the future. All-out war has left a lot of devastation. But in Defiance, formerly St. Louis, the famed arch remains while various groups of aliens and humans strive to live peaceably. Alas, they’re also subject to periodic attacks by vicious outside forces.

Viewers are first introduced to former Marine and latter day “tracker” Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler from Lifetime’s recent Liz & Dick) and his fiery adopted daughter, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas). She’s an Irathient by birth, and they often don’t get along very well. Still, dad and daughter manage to act in perfect harmony during a spirited and quite prolonged sing-along to Johnny Cash’s “Jackson.” It’s their road music for a salvage mission that yields a blue, glowing ball. It looks like a thrift store castoff but supposedly is worth millions. And this time Joshua promises to parlay any riches into Irisa’s dream trip to the promised land of Antarctica, which she has seen only in a postcard book.

Meanwhile, Defiance is being run by new mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz), who delivers what’s supposed to be a stirring speech (but isn’t) on Armistice Day. The scheming Albino-like Castithan couple of Datak and Stahma Tarr (Tony Curran, Jaime Murray) are in attendance, as is grumpy mining magnate Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene). Another central character, Amanda’s sister, Kenya (Mia Kirshner), runs the NeedWant bar and brothel.

Rafe’s rebellious daughter, Christie (Nicole Munoz), wants to marry the Tarrs’ son, Alak (Jesse Rath). Friction ensues between the families while Defiance also girds for a major invasion by the bad-nasty Volges. Will Joshua stick around to help out after the mayor delivers a paint-by-the-numbers pep talk to the citizenry? Might he end up being the town’s new “Lawkeeper?” You already know those answers.

Bowler tries hard to be a jaunty, glib Joshua, but the script does him no favors. And the way he says “Yeahhhh” Sunday night is very reminiscent of Gary Cole’s delivery of that word as the unyielding bossman of Office Space.

But the mayor and Greene’s Rafe get stuck with most of the clunkier lines. In next week’s Episode 2, hear the old man bellow, “If you walk out that door again, there’s no coming back.” And later: “Predicting the future’s a sucker’s game.” Viewers also will learn that Rafe’s dad was “Chow Down Brown,” a prosperous dog food merchandiser. It’s downright painful when Joshua sings the company’s jingle while Rafe grouses some more.

But at least Irisa, also known as “Little Wolf,” emerges as a standout character in the three episodes sent for review. And the Tarrs can be some fun with their quirky ways and villainous sneers. Wife Stahma also rocks some outfits that would be even too abbreviated for Dancing with the Stars.

All the while, Defiance certainly doesn’t look cheap. The big battle climaxing Episode 1 is pretty much a wowser. Landscapes are breathtaking throughout and those big bad “Hellbugs” in Episode 3 are also impressively rendered. The accompanying, frequently deployed mood music doesn’t fare nearly so well. Particularly a lengthy “Ooh, ooh child, things are gonna get easier” tableau at the end of Episode 3. It’s one big “Please stop!” groaner.

Defiance is definitely a treat for the eyes, though, if not always the ears. It’s good to see a cable network aspiring to do something big and bold rather than again dipping into America’s seemingly bottomless pit of “real-life” hillbillies, bumpkins and big-bearded non-bathers. So thanks for that, Syfy. Now please get to work on the basics.


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