Many years ago, I scoffed at the building buzz about an upcoming theatrical release. "It might be good," I told friends, "but kids aren't interested in dinosaurs." The movie: Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park."
That lesson learned, let me predict that another Spielberg project, Fox's "Terra Nova," will be one of the TV's biggest smashes this season -- and not just because kids love dinosaurs.
Although it may be television's costliest series ever, "Terra" works because it's more about flesh-and-blood characters than computer-generated creatures.
"It was far more challenging finding a believable family that you can fall in love with," said co-executive producer Brannon Braga. "Fortunately, that's the thing that's working the absolute best right now."
We meet that family, the Shannons, in Monday's premiere. It's 2149 and the environment has collapsed to the point where an outside stroll requires a gas mask, and a fresh orange is cause for raucous celebration. After a series of bad breaks, the Shannons are invited to board an exclusive time machine to join colonists a million years in the past.
"This is a chance to start over," says the settlement's leader, Nathaniel Taylor (played by Stephen Lang, the tough-guy colonel in "Avatar"). "This is a chance to get it right."
Yeah, as long as kids stay within the dinosaur-protected gates, which of course they don't.
There's also a rebel team with a mighty ax to grind, some innocent flirtation between teens and more than a few group hugs.
The Spielberg touch
If that sounds an awful lot like a Spielberg formula, that's because the "Jurassic" director served as a principal adviser for "Terra Nova," weighing in on everything from visual effects to story lines.
"There were a couple occasions where we were playing a scene and [co-executive producer] Jon Cassar would say, 'We're going to do it this way,' and I would stupidly ask, 'Why?' And he'd say, 'Because that's what Mr. Spielberg wants,'" said Jason O'Mara, who plays Jim Shannon, the father who is fearless about protecting his loved ones. "His presence was really felt on the set and in the finished product."
Spielberg has yet to actually visit the set, largely because it's in Southern Queensland, Australia, a location as lush and captivating as Hawaii in "Lost." O'Mara said the remote location is beneficial, and not only because it looks stunning on the small screen.
"We already feel like we're sort of displaced pioneer families," he said. "It makes our jobs a little easier as actors."
There is a price to pay for such exotic locations and groundbreaking special effects. The two-hour "Terra" pilot was originally supposed to air in spring as a teaser to the fall season, a strategy that worked well for Fox with "Glee." But the visuals proved too demanding to get done in that time frame.
Rene Echevarria, yet another executive producer, said they discovered that they need six more weeks of post-production work than most shows do. These effects have never been attempted before in film or TV. In fact, Echevarria said that five years ago no one thought the technology was possible.
The results are worth the delays. If you don't jump at the first sight of flesh-munching dinosaurs on a tirade, you're cleared to join Bear Grylls on his next "Man Vs. Wild" adventure.
Innovation doesn't come cheap. According to the Los Angeles Times, the pilot cost $20 million, setting "Terra" on track to being the most expensive TV series in history.
Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly believes it will be worth it.
"Is it a big bet? Yes, but that's the business we're in," he said. "Whether the show works or not, it's not going to come on quietly. It's going to get sampled and it's going to be different from anything else on the air."
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