Last year Syfy turned the famous whale room at New York's American Museum of Natural History purple to unveil its annual slate to the assembled press and advertisers corps. The network's 2013 upfront took place in the considerably less grand surroundings of Chelsea Piers' Silver Screen Studios, where they used to shoot Law & Order for the gazillion years that show was on the air. The downgrade in venue was somewhat ill-timed since the network's 2013-2014 line-up looks to be significantly stronger than its predecessor, which offered two scripted shows (including a series called Rewind that seems to have been scrapped entirely) and a bunch of dubious-sounding reality series, many of which never even aired (so long Awesome Foundation -- we're kinda glad we never got the chance to know you). Unlike the 2012 edition, 2013's slate feels potentially big enough to fill the Natural History Museum's cavernous whale room, whereas last year the surroundings just barely distracted from the thinness of the content.
Not surprisingly, the centerpiece of Syfy's upfront was Defiance, the ambitious and likely very expensive series that the network is launching on April 15. Syfy initially unveiled the show at the 2012 upfront before a frame of footage had been shot. This year, though, they came armed with not just several different highlights reels, but also the six core cast members (including Grant Bowler, Julie Benz, Stephanie Leonidas, Tony Curran, Jaime Murray and Mia Kirshner) and tons of props (most notably the tricked-out Dodge Charger that serves as Bowler's ride), which were scattered around the venue. Defiance's domination of the event speaks to how central the show is to Syfy's future. And, having seen the full two-hour pilot, I have to say that I'm pleasantly surprised by its potential. While admittedly very derivative (the writers have cherry-picked elements from almost every Syfy series made since the network was still the Sci-Fi Channel, from Farscape to Stargate), Defiance benefits from a likable cast and a promising setting -- the city formerly known as St. Louis, which has been rechristened as Defiance following a planet-transforming alien invasion and currently serves as the home to a mixed population of humans, aliens and other creatures. Mainly, I'm just happy to see that Defiance is, you know, a genuine science-fiction series, rather than more of the supernatural stuff Syfy has been dallying with of late. And even though the earthbound location doesn't completely repeal the dumb "no spaceships" rule that the network apparently initiated a few years ago, at least spaceships are tangentially involved and the success of this show could result in... well, more spaceships! Look for our weekly recaps of Defiance to launch following the show's April 15 debut.
Beyond its importance to Syfy's bottom line, Defiance is also supposed to be the linchpin in the network's strategy to become leaders in second, third and even fourth-screen experiences. If you've been following the development of the series at all, you already know that Defiance arrives with a tie-in massively multiplayer online game (which just went on sale last week) where events of the show will be felt in the game and vice versa. Now, the network was careful to stress that you don't have to do both, but they'd certainly appreciate it if you did. And rather than wait around to see whether this trial balloon soars, Syfy is going all-in on supplementing the television viewing experience with bonus online content. Almost every single new series they unveiled during the upfront presentation had some kind of second-screen experience built in to the premise. Here's a breakdown of the Syfy shows that may be coming your way in the next year and their accompanying online component.
Premise: Battlestar Galactica vet Ronald D. Moore returns to the Syfy family with this claustrophobic thriller that takes place entirely within an Arctic research facility where a team of scientists works to understand a new disease that could potentially change the world for the better... or, more likely, the worse.
Verdict: As one of the few people around not disappointed by the end of BSG, I'm always enthused for more Moore. And Helix's The Thing meets The Andromeda Strain premise is certainly intriguing. Bring it on, Ron. (Scroll down to the final graf to see exclusive comments from Moore about Helix).
Second Screen Experience: Helix will make use of the network's Syfy Sync app, giving viewers access to the show's lab for bonus clues and background information not included in the show.
Untitled Jamie Foxx Horror Series
Premise: Wanna see some scary shit? Well, Jamie Foxx is apparently gonna bring it to you in a horror anthology series that he'll be directing, writing and executive-producing. And Foxx knows scary. After all, this is the dude who starred in both Booty Call and Breakin' All the Rules.
Verdict: It'd be nice to a have a great horror anthology series on the air again, but I'm not convinced (yet) that Foxx is the person to do it.
Second Screen Experience: Nothing was announced, but don't be surprised if they come up with something closer to whenever the show hits the airwaves. How about tweeting your worst nightmare to Foxx? Mine would be having to watch Law Abiding Citizen again.
High Moon, Ringworld and Childhood's End
Prior to the upfronts, Syfy announced three new scripted shows via press release, but made little mention of them during the actual event, probably because they are all still a considerable ways off from going before cameras. The Bryan Fuller-produced High Noon was namechecked on the stage, as was Ringworld, a four-hour miniseries adapted of Larry Niven's popular novel. The project that has me the most excited/nervous -- Syfy's planned adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's seminal book Childhood's End, one of my all-time favorite science fiction stories -- went completely unacknowledged, though. Maybe we'll hear more about it at the 2014 upfront.
Premise: Follow six experienced female costume players (and their boobs) as they show off their creativity (and their boobs) by crafting and dressing up in lavish costumes derived from comic books, anime, video games and the occasional movie and parading their wares (and their boobs) in a series of cosplay shows. (Also, boobs.)
Verdict: "Are you kidding? I'll never watch that." That's what the entire male nerd population of America will be telling their significant others when Cosworld launches. Kudos to Syfy for giving guys (and gals, too, let's not gender-type) the opportunity to gawk at scantily clad women (and their boobs) in the privacy of their own homes without causing traffic jams on comic book convention floors.
Second Screen Experience: The six cosplayers will be recording behind-the-scenes vlogs throughout the docu-show's run.
Premise: Remember Jersey Shore? Well, here's the Syfy version (produced, coincidentally enough, by the Shore team): a group of nerds are thrown together in a house and hijinks supposedly ensue. Expect a higher level of vocabulary and a hell of a lot less sex.
Verdict: Just... no. TBS's King of the Nerds was already painful enough and this one doesn't even have the competition aspect that at least gave those dorks something useful to do.
Second Screen Experience: The network-described "adorkable" cast will be available to interact with via Google Hangouts if you care to do so.
Jim Henson's Creature Workshop
Premise: A companion piece to Face Off, this competitive reality series finds a group of aspiring special effects artists squaring off to score a gig at the famed Creature Workshop created by Muppet mastermind, Jim Henson.
Verdict: Oh, hell yes. This show had me the minute the cameras cut to the life-size model of Hoggle the Dwarf just sitting there in the Henson Workshop. If you, like me, grew up dreaming of Skeksis and Goblins, welcome back to your childhood.
Second Screen Experience: A web series that will launch after the season ends and follow the eventual winner through his or her apprenticeship at the Creature Workshop.
Joe Rogan Questions Everything
Premise: The ex-Fear Factor host, MMA-fighter and podcasting professional travels the world exploring and doing crazy shit -- like sleeping in a haunted house -- so you don't have to.
Verdict: Rogan's description of the show was so vague, I'm not even sure he knows what a typical episode will look like. Still, I might give it a chance... if only to keep him from coming over to my house and punching me out with those tree-trunk arms.
Second Screen Experience: Rogan will tweet additional content to the show's fans, who may or may not be able to tweet thoughts and questions back to him. The one danger with that is -- given his Fear Factor background -- he might decide to take a Twitter taunt like "Eat a dick" seriously.
Premise: Okay, see if you can wrap your heads around the set-up for Syfy's run at Big Brother. So there's this house and it's been split down the middle into two different environments. One side boasts all manner of deluxe accommodations, while the other is closer to a hellhole. Two groups of contestants are then dropped down into these have and have-not domiciles and are able to observe each other through the Plexiglass wall that separates the two worlds. The real-time two nights a week broadcasts then throws a series of challenges their way that will either grant some of them a passport to the luxury or a one-way ticket to craptown.
Verdict: Got all that? Good, because I'm still way confused about how the hell this concept is actually going to work. I guess Big Brother has managed to pull it off for, like, a million seasons, but still... who in their right mind would want to do this?
Second Screen Experience: Between the live episodes, viewers will have a chance to influence the proceedings by virtually sending players gifts (like food) a la The Hunger Games. Can we send them a bus ticket home?
Premise: No, it's not a reality series based on the insomnia-curing M. Night Shyamalan superhero movie that a lot of people seem to love for some reason. Instead, this endurance-themed show follows a group of adrenaline junkies as they compete in a series of punishing physical and psychological tests inspired by the Spartan Death Race.
Verdict: This seems more suited to a network like Spike TV or the network formerly known as Versus. But extreme endurance competitions like this do have their fans. Whether they overlap with the Syfy audience at all is an open question.
Second Screen Experience: Viewers can Skype with contestants and download a Facebook app that allow them to predict who will win the week's designated challenge, with a potential reward awaiting the person who makes the correct guess.
After the presentation, everyone decamped to a recreation of Defiance's Need/Want bar, decked out with additional props from the show as well as a wall of HD screens where you could give the video game a test run. I picked up a controller and managed to die roughly 500 times in the span of five minutes; fortunately, I proved far more successful at knocking back the futuristic "Fire" and "Ice" martinis that were being poured on the floor by servers wearing Ghostbusters-style alcohol-dispensing backpacks. (Sadly, those were not handed out as swag freebies.)
Somewhere in the middle of the Syfy melee, I managed to grab a few moments with Ron Moore himself, who gave a special shout-out to TWoP's very own Jacob Clifton for his "fascinating and very, very well-done" (his words) BSG recaps, which Moore avidly read and enjoyed, even when he didn't agree with them. Moore went on to say that, like Galactica, Helix will be tightly serialized rather than episodic. "The concept is its 13 episodes and each episode is one day, so it's going to be like two weeks at this base. And the pressure and claustrophobia of that will be part of the story. There's an arc to the season and the idea is that the next season will be a continuation of the story in a different way. It's a little different being back on Earth, but with the research facility, it's almost like they're in a spaceship -- they're far from civilization and by themselves." He's also contemplating reviving the episode-by-episode podcasts that were such a great supplement to BSG. "I love doing those podcasts and I'd like to get back to doing it, but I haven't decided yet." One aspect of the Battlestar experience he knows he's not planning to repeat is promising any series-long questions where the answers might be held over his head by the audience when the show wraps up. "I'm still happy and proud of [the Galactica finale]." So say we all. Or maybe just me...
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