Invasion is the best Stephen King series he never penned. Actually, it might be better to say that it’s the best sci-fi show that Steven Spielberg didn’t bring to the small screen. At a moment Lost defines the parameters of pseudo-paranormal drama, Shaun Cassidy (yes, that Shaun Cassidy) and ABC have delivered an eerie and atmospheric entity that combines the epic scope of a Hollywood blockbuster with the juicy fear factors found in one of King’s tomes.
With a prescient premise (a possible alien invasion occurs during one hell of a hurricane) and a cast whose minimal star power makes for maximum believability, we are instantly sucked into the situation unfolding in Homestead, Florida. But for all these interstellar elements, it’s the family relationships and interpersonal issues that form the core of this story. Invasion is about trust, suspicion, and the dread inherent in both concepts.
Park ranger Russell (Eddie Cibrian) and his new wife, TV reporter Larkin (Lisa Sheridan), live right on the Everglades, and as super-storm Eve is about to hit, tensions are mounting both inside and outside the home. Russell’s angry ex-wife, Dr. Marial Underlay (Kari Matchett), believes he’s too irresponsible to watch the kids. Before going home to her new family — hubby Sheriff Tom (William Fichtner) and stepdaughter Kira — she makes a last minute check on her children. After a big blowup with Russell and her son Jesse (Evan Peters), Marial leaves and ends up lost in the maelstrom.
Thus the first intriguing aspect of Invasion is in place. A lot of families will be displaced by the storm, and citizens will turn up missing after it finishes wiping away most of Southern Florida. Those who are eventually found turn up dazed, confused, and — oddly — naked among the rubble. They are disoriented and dizzy at first, then suddenly regain their composure, as well as a subtle set of new personality traits. As their relationships start to realign, the differences become more noticeable. Little Rose (Ariel Gade) says it best when her missing mother is found. “You smell different,” the child whispers, whereupon mom looks suitably grim.
Located within a clean-up following a natural disaster, Invasion is instantly believable. People who’ve experienced an event like a hurricane will find themselves changed in some way. But Invasion supposes that outside forces, metaphorical or literal, are responsible for the alteration (an opening attack on a military plane is one of the show’s F/X highlights). Peppered with lots of conflicting clues (lights that “bite,” a “partially consumed” corpse from the swamp), the pilot episode keeps us guessing.
Invasion also keeps us concerned for the fractured family. As usual, it is the kids who are paying for the problems of their parents, and as windows into this world, they are stellar. Jesse and Rose are used to the routine, but that doesn’t make it any less painful for them to see their parents pick each other apart. As depicted in the first episode, they are simultaneously more grounded and more open to previously unimagined possibilities than their self-centered caregivers. It’s what gives the series its familiar style. It also keeps us focused when the local residents start pulling the zombie routine.
If this all sounds very Body Snatchers-ish, the truth is that Invasion delves into the pod people idea, using performance, not pixels and CG, to create its creeps. It also recalls those other examples of heightened hysteria films from the ’50s and ’60s, when some external element (nuclear, communist) strives to undermine the American way. The series does emphasize a fairly clear “us vs. them” paradigm, even going so far as to merge it into the blended family feuds. The potential villains are hinted at (the sheriff and his doctor wife aren’t the nicest people to start) and heroism is written all over our pensive park ranger dad.
The series includes as well that necessary nag, the hip Internet junkie, christening him Dave (Tyler Labine), Larkin’s loser brother. Dave discovers the body in the bog. Dave instantly believes Rose’s story about lights in the sky and water. And it is Dave who seems destined to have the first run-in with the aliens, as he rambles about conspiracy theories between belts of beer (he even has his own blog on the ABC website, where he rants about “cover-ups” and “something fishy”).
Perhaps the most satisfying element in the series is its patience. As shown in Cassidy’s previous series — American Gothic being his best remembered — he has a sense of the big picture. Instead of feeling episodic, his shows stretch narrative threads over weeks; situations that seem minor now will come back to reveal profound significance. His work is literary, novels for television, not just scattershot installments in service of action or suspense.
It does feel truncated (a two-hour pilot might have granted more, and more expensive, storm images), but it engages nonetheless. When a hurricane strikes, the damage is near impossible to comprehend immediately. And Eve has brought along something more sinister than wrecked houses and flooded streets to the devastating mix.