While science fiction programming had moved out of the niche ghetto with the success of Star Trek The Next Generation, even when that show had crossed over into mainstream popularity it was still not considered cool within the media to be a science fiction fan until the arrival of the show which redefined that genre and broke all the rules. Twenty years after its debut, that The X Files stands as a monumental achievement in modern television cannot be doubted. Running for 202 episodes across nine seasons on the notoriously parochial Fox Network and with two features films, it was a worldwide hit with a domestic peak viewing figure of just under 30 million in January 1997 for the episode Leonard Betts.
While that show made stars of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, show creator Chris Carter has struggled to maintain his profile. Despite critical acclaim, the ex post facto spin off Millennium struggled to connect with audiences and only survived three seasons, while the more light hearted companion show The Lone Gunmen, like the standalone Harsh Realm, lasted only a single season.
With the rising market of original direct streaming television shows such as Hemlock Grove and the remake of House of Cards via Netflix, it is the similarly modelled Amazon Studios who have become the home of Carter’s new endeavour, The After. With only a pilot released so far, written and directed by Carter, the show has been confirmed for a full season, their first dramatic release though several stablemates have been optioned including the pickup of the third season of Ripper Street.
Opening with a montage of jump cut images, the mundane, the comforting, the confusing, the chaotic and the nightmarish, the waking moments of budding actress Gigi (Louise Monot) segue into her daily routine, chatting with her husband and child in France via smartphone as she prepares for an audition, her daring attempt to secure the part resulting in her being offered an alternative role she considers beneath her.
Returning to her apartment and passing a large police contingent in the lobby, a power cut results in her being trapped between floors with four strangers, an increasingly antagonistic man (McCormack, Andrew Howard), a clown (Dave, Jamie Kennedy), a middle aged woman (Francis, Sharon Lawrence) and a police officer (Marla, Jaina Lee Ortiz).
Managing to free themselves into the underground parking garage where they meet Wade and his high class companion Tammy (Adrian Pasdar of Heroes and Arielle Kebbel of The Vampire Diaries), the reason for the police presence is revealed as an effort to locate and secure an escaped prisoner (Dee, Aldis Hodge of Leverage), also now trapped in the parking garage, armed and increasingly desperate.
With the gates sealed and all mobile communications out, forced to cooperate in order to free themselves the eight find the city in gridlocked chaos and shaken by terrifying sonic booms, and out of desperation retreat to Francis’ mansion where, despite no longer being trapped, tensions escalate higher as prejudices are revealed and no answers are forthcoming.
Very much removed from the personable characters of Carter’s previous shows, the cast of The After are almost designed to be unlikeable, chief among them McCormack, unable to complete a single sentence without profanity or vulgarity, nor are even the more ostensibly sympathetic characters anything other than oblivious to anything other than their own needs, with Francis lapsing into a clearly signposted diabetic coma while the others argue despite her repeated pleas for assistance.
With her increasing impatience with the imposition upon her hospitality coupled with her wandering mind, Lawrence, who once graced Star Trek Voyager as Amelia Earhart, is the most enjoyable presence, though the unexpected honour of Hodge’s allegedly wrongly convicted escapee marks him as a character to watch.
Clearly chasing the current model of “event” television, the inspiration of Lost, FlashForward, even The Walking Dead is clear in the packed streets of abandoned cars, though quite why mass transit should have failed when helicopters and the vehicles of the emergency services are still functioning is a glaring inconsistency, as is the rapidity with which Officer Gonzalez throws her lot in with her newfound allies and goes native.
That Amazon’s only previous attempt at genre programming, the television adaptation of the film Zombieland, was not progressed beyond the pilot is telling, and though they are present, the fantastic elements of The After are very much downplayed, though later scenes hint that greater revelations of the cause of the event which has precipitated the crisis and a deeper connection between the strangers may be forthcoming.
Already falling back on the staples of his previous hits, lost time, running through the woods at night with torch beams aloft, unlikely coincidences and mysterious creatures in the shadows, while Carter is adept at handling actors and dialogue and effectively creates tension from very little, this requires something more if it is to be anything more than a generic also-ran, even in the less competitive streaming market.