A Not-So-Ragtag Fleet of colonial ships from a system of seven affiliated alien races -- some, but not all, of them of the "bumpy-head humanoid" variety, which if that's going to be a problem you should just eject now -- arrived on Earth sometime around 2013, thinking it was an empty world big enough for the remnants of their culture (collectively called Votans) to start over. Arks full of survivors, tech and terraforming equipment traveled for like 5000 years and when they got here… well, we were here.
After six years of troubled negotiations, a war began that caused massive trauma to the planet, including some terraforming stuff that left civilization all jacked up but the environment more welcoming for our visitors. Joshua Nolan, played by my very favorite dude Grant Bowler, was sixteen when the Votan arrived, and he eventually enlisted in the conflict, called the Pale Wars. I think the Votan held onto a unified front during this time, although there are plenty of resentments and weirdnesses waiting to erupt between the alien races once the war was over.
At some point, Josh's unit (the Ninth) decided -- along with soldiers on the other side -- that the war was stupid, mutually assured destruction being a non-starter, plus the fact that everybody is now here, for good or ill. So they decided to start saving civilians instead. These Defiant Few inspired a movement that ended the war, starting in his hometown of St. Louis and we join him about 30 years later with his adopted alien daughter, a war orphan named Irisa.
The father-daughter pair of scavengers are caught at the moment of their greatest success by a roving gang of Irathients -- which is what Irisa is -- who take their money and leave them stranded and dying on the outskirts of St. Louis, now named "Defiance" after the original act of radical pacifism that established the new status quo. Brought inside the town by the Sheriff, Joshua and Irisa get to know the town (and, for us, the world) while they try to get enough money together to get back on the road.
Amanda Rosewater's a natural leader who was nominated a few weeks ago as Defiance's interim mayor by the outgoing one, her mentor and boss, and is still unsure about the whole thing. (Julie Benz, with a lot less patience for bullshit than we've seen from her in a while.) Her sister Kenya runs the local brothel, Need/Want, and is played by Mia Kirschner, who is doing the usual polarizing thing she usually does. (For the record I always find her delightful.)
While the scale of the settlement is hard to pin down -- is it a refugee camp, a cultural oasis, the biggest city left? -- it's easy enough to get a handle on the politics: The mines are run by the human McCawley family (good eggs, with a little of the cute racism you'd expect from a patriarch who came up in wartime) and the power brokers are the Tarrs, an aristocratic family of the Castithan race (the rich, management sleaze family that runs every town in a Western, but plus the fact that Castithans were this to the other Votan before they even got here). The Mayor juggles everything while the two families war for public opinion and their bases of power.
On Jeb's first day of recovery -- Armistice Day, a full-town block party celebrating the Defiant Few and the end of the Pale Wars -- he meets with the Mayor, makes friends with the Sherriff, gets into fight-club trouble with the sleazy Tarrs and meet-cute/fucks the town madam. He is that kind of guy and it is great.
But while he's doing all that -- and we're learning to love Irisa, who is not at all the sassafras teen Klingon the ads would have you believe, but a complicated and fairly delightful young woman, if you don't mind getting stabbed sometimes -- there's another story brewing: The daughter of the McCawleys is in love with, you guessed it, the son of the Tarrs. Her eldest brother starts a bunch of shit about it at the big festival, young Tarr gets pushed into retaliation and violent words are exchanged.
Which wouldn't be a big deal -- you go from being like, "One more trope you couldn't shove in there?" to being like, "This is actually kind of interesting but I hope the show isn't hugely about this" to being like, "Mia Kirschner and Grant Bowler having sex is way more interesting than everything else I have ever seen in my life" -- except that the brother does end up dead, somehow. And this means a posse and the McCawley patriarch attacking the Tarr teenager in the middle of the brothel, which causes a riot, which is immediately ended by Irisa and Jeb (they fight together really well)... but not without the current Sheriff getting killed. Hmm, wonder if there's a war hero bad-ass anywhere nearby that might take over since he has no other prospects?
You can play "count the references" or not, as you see fit but it does feel fresh and interesting as you watch it, the underlying mythology has a million possibilities and stories inherent in it, there are charming grace notes and notable performances and humor throughout, and mostly by the end, the references to every other TV show you've ever seen just all sort of blur together and you realize that probably this is how such a fun, smart show got made: By selling some suit the Romeo & Juliet story, some other suit how Farscape people are the only people more insanely devoted than Browncoats, a "what if BSG was about the arrival of the Colonial Fleet" story, the rough-hewn single father becoming sheriff of a science-y town, the Fables thing with Snow White/Rose Red as the Mayor and -- spoiler alert -- her wild younger sister, and so on...
...Which is the other thing. Genre eats its references so quickly in the first place that half of these things were western tropes first, whether or not you recognize them that way, and so a lot of "this is a rip-off of my favorite show" stuff -- which is frankly annoying anyway -- doesn’t really pan out. The merits of the thing in front of you, while still up for debate, are a much more valid way to determine the quality, if you're into good TV and not just your feelings about the thing: It told me within the first five minutes that it was going to be my kind of thing, and I'd imagine it told you so too. I mean, that's how good stories get made: By putting things, words, ideas, together in new forms. And this, from what I've seen so far, is a good story. And I don't even like westerns.
Next episode: The Tarrs are even more tacky than you thought, a literal army comes to destroy Defiance, Amanda pulls her shit together, and the Nolans make some life-changing decisions.
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CAN'T STOP (TALKING ABOUT) THE SIGNAL
One thing I like about this pilot is that it doesn't spend a lot of time explaining things. I can imagine it sending you to your tablet from moment one, but that's just background color: If you had no access to the internet, it would be enjoyable nonetheless. Maybe (I'd say indubitably) moreso.
Now, the downside is that all you have left to navigate the story is the stuff it presents to you in trope form, which is pretty intense, because for a certain kind of person -- reliably, a science-fiction-fan kind of person -- noting those tropes as existing is a shortstop ticket to writing something off as a copycat pastiche. I am really turned off by this quality in people, but I also do it, and this pilot -- in the absence of exposition -- offers very little else in the way of world-building beyond "That thing you remember from another story? Yeah, it's like that. Don't worry about it."
On balance I'll take it. For me, they accreted so fast that I felt no other option than to settle in and watch them whiz by, which they do, throughout the whole thing. I'm not a person who enjoys having the same conversation more than once -- and the internet seems uninterested in talking about anything else, beyond the game tie-in which is also a pretty boring topic to me -- so I'm not really going to get into that beyond footnoting it, but by the same token it can get a little ADD: Scenes that are not really that long seem occasionally to stretch out into infinity, when it's a scene you've seen (or think you've seen) before.
But as a rule, it works well with my tendency to associate and go with my gut when I'm talking about this stuff: If it reminds you of something, the interesting part isn't that you're a better or smarter person for having caught them, the interesting part is why it hit you, what it reminded you of, what parts are isometric, why the differences matter, and the connections you can make using the other thing as a template. Which is why this first hour recap is gonna be -- just guessing -- eleventy-thousand pages long.
However. I can tell you that grizzled Browncoats looking for methadone will be disappointed, if that's why you came to the party. The Seven Samurai storyline from a million Westerns and from Firefly isn't really the point here: This is a mining town, a whole other kind of Western and one that your casual SF/Westerns don't really explore beyond the occasional away mission. (Because TV shows are budgeted around standing sets, I'd imagine, is why those frontier-town shows were such a big deal in the first place.) So the intersection of those things is actually coming from one of those planets in the Firefly universe, or more directly among space shows, from central-depot stories like Deep Space Nine and smalltown-justice shows like Eureka (which is by far the most resonant comparison, given the cuteness and heart of so much that goes down, the focus on family, and the characters at the center of the series).