We were having a back-and-forth about Debris, NBC’s weekly procedural exploring a pair of government agents trying to track down and retrieve the fallen wreckage of an alien spaceship from across the United States. His position was that Debris wasn’t even a Science Fiction show, that there was no examination of the ‘said debris’ regularly, and that if anything the program was little more than mainstream fare with some psychological overtones. My position was that he was clearly watching a different version of the show than I was – one likely broadcast in his own head – as every single episode dealt directly with the effects ‘said debris’ was having on the victims unfortunate enough to find it.
Don’t worry. We parted friends.
Still, I get the fellow’s point: Debris’ premise meant that the audience wasn’t going to be spending an awful lot of time in outer space or ogling the flashing bells and whistles of a high-tech military laboratory (or starship bridge), the very kinds of things many TV fans still tune in to see. Instead, this ‘said debris’ was far more emotional and/or dramatic storytelling. Wouldn’t you know it, but we, the audience, would have to spend time investing in things like characters, actions, and consequences when all we really wanted were aliens, phasers, and deep space travel.
Yes, I kid, but it’s easy (or should be) to see my point: Debris was never intended to be your ‘run of the mill’ SciFi/Fantasy weekly. It was about more than that. Much more than that.
For those who missed it, Debris sprang from the mind of J.H. Wyman, a producer of Fox’s stellar Fringe and the criminally-underrated Almost Human. Fringe dealt with a team of experts trying to explain the unexplainable, and the program explored such high-profile SciFi tropes as cloning, mind-enhancing drugs, and parallel universes. Almost Human – by contrast – was a smaller, gentler procedural that paired two cops – one human, one synthetic – in a weekly routine wherein the goal was just to protect and serve. Understanding wherein Wyman comes from, it should be clear to any viewer that Debris was not going to be conventional fare but smart, prescient, and probing … and those are perhaps three of the worst descriptors you could possibly ever offer a studio executive with a checkbook.
In fact, the smarter any property is the less likely it’s going to find an audience, much less quickly. Fringe is the perfect example of that.
Fringe launched on Fox, and by all accounts it was pretty clear early on that the network and audience likely saw it as a carbon copy for Chris Carter’s The X-Files, the popular series that gave us David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as federal agents exploring the weird and wonderful. Though Fringe didn’t have the alien mythology angle, it dabbled in otherwise similar subject matter. Yet, unlike the X-Files, folks weren’t exactly showing up in record viewership. Once the program found its own ‘central mythology’ it definitely tapped into cult potential very, very quickly … even though the network tried to relegate it into the famed ‘Friday night broadcast death slot.’ Fringe eventually soared but not early on.
I remember reading an interview involving Akiva Goldsman about his joining the writing team on Fringe. I’ve Googled and can’t find it, so I’m having to go from memory on this one. What I recall is that he noticed that the writers were only dabbling sparingly with the show’s slowly emerging central storyline, that involving a parallel Earth wherein our characters’ doubles were involved in some shady science and potentially nefarious doings. When he saw what they had planned, Goldsman was quick to point out, “Get the audience there! That’s good storytelling! That’s what audiences want!” They did, and the show truly blossomed into something special.
Though I could be wrong, I think Debris had the same creative hang-up: the writers were pacing themselves to keep the big reveals coming but not at the rate its shrinking audience would accept. The show arguably evolved over its last four or five episodes, and what took shape was a program that – like Fringe – was deeply entrenched in science we knew little or nothing about. Its leads Bryan Beneventi (played by Jonathan Tucker) and Finola Jones (Riann Steele) were gradually coming to realize that the scope of what they knew was miniscule compared to the virtual galaxy of knowledge awaiting their discovery, and I suspect that the audience – had they hung around – would likely have been treated to some world-changing, ground-breaking ideas.
That’s always the problem with the ‘slow burn.’ Fire catches quickly, but when not enough is done to keep it stoked those embers grow cold. Despite Hollywood’s current investment in the long-form structure, I’ve yet to see any program succeed – especially in genre entertainment – without a healthy, regular, and expensive dose of shock-and-awe. Much of Debris’ best moments were smaller reveals – yes, quite probably more psychological than visual spectacle – and the folks simply tuned them out or missed them completely. It’s a sad state of affairs but such is still the nature of episodic television.
Alas, Debris is likely gone now, as the Peacock network has shrugged the show off into the cancellation bin. I think that’s sad – we were really just getting to know its foundation and exploring the potential – and I’m disappointed that its closing cliffhanger will never get resolution. You’d think that coming to life on the cusp of this whole damned COVID affair might earn those kids a longer shelf-life to build something special, but the suits saw otherwise.
Its world deserved better.