'Defiance' review: Sci-fi study required

Grant Bowler as Jeb Nolan in Syfy's series

Grant Bowler as Jeb Nolan in Syfy's series "Defiance." (Credit: AP)

SERIES PREMIERE "Defiance"

WHEN | WHERE Monday night at 9 on Syfy

REASON TO WATCH Adventures in post-apocalyptic America.


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WHAT IT'S ABOUT Defiance is the town named for the epic battle after alien ships descended to "terraform" Earth's landscape into badlands. It's a sci-fi Western: The righteous tough dude Jeb Nolan (Grant Bowler, who played Richard Burton in "Liz & Dick"), who's just riding through, finds chaos in what used to be St. Louis. The makeshift place now roils with a powerful mine owner (Graham Greene), a crime lord (Tony Curran) scheming to be a respected businessman, feuding families with star-crossed teen lovers, even giant creatures rampaging the outskirts.

Some of the "eight races" on Earth now, circa 30 years hence, have managed to assimilate, while maintaining their traditional values. There's the white-haired race of the crime lord and his conniving wife (Jaime Murray) with the clothes-phobia. There's the white-scaled race of the local doctor-science whiz (Trenna Keating). There's the flat-nosed race of the rough-and-ready daughter (Stephanie Leonidas) adopted by hero Nolan during his wanderings.

Nolan is in the familiar "Firefly"/"Farscape"/"Eureka" mold -- a vagabond loner who settles among a crew to dispense justice, plus witty repartee. Soon, he's the local lawkeeper -- while keeping his salvager's eye out for tech treasures lurking thereabouts. He wouldn't mind making friends, with the "lady mayor" (Julie Benz) and/or her sex-and-saloon-running sis (Mia Kirshner).

MY SAY I prefer TV that doesn't require homework first. And serious study seems in order to grasp what's happening at the start of "Defiance." The movie-length pilot is packed with action and sex, yes. Also packed with hard-to-distinguish alien races, opaque motivations, fuzzy correlations and even alien languages with subtitles. There's some grand conspiracy afoot. I think I spotted the "Lost" smoke monster, too. Then flashbacks start.

Beyond the genre conventions, we get Shakespeare, with Lady Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and other references I'm sure went straight over my head. So many touchstones lend the show a prefab feel. The pilot is so busy establishing its new world, performances are afterthought generic.

But "Defiance" gets more distinctive, and dramatic, through its next two hour episodes. I'm intrigued by the human-alien dynamics. The monsters and battle action don't do as much for me. They should for fans also immersed in the "Defiance" online-console video game that's simultaneously sketching this multi-platform universe. That leaves Syfy with a tricky balancing act. Four hours in, I'm guardedly curious enough to play -- make that watch -- along for a little while.

BOTTOM LINE Hit the books at syfy.com/defiance

GRADE B-

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