With the end of Pretty Little Liars (finally) on the horizon, Freeform is searching for a replacement series it hopes will be able to recapture the surprisingly long-lasting magic of the tragedies of Rosewood. This year the network, which ditched the ABC Family moniker in January in an attempt to move away from the longtime family-oriented label, launched Guilt, an Amanda Knox-like murder mystery series set in the United Kingdom. It was canceled after one season. The '80s-set series Dead of Summer reached a similar fate.
Freeform is now hoping its new slate of upcoming programming, which includes the Bella Thorne drama Famous in Love and a Marvel series (corporate synergy!), will garner the same level of attention from a young, media-obsessed audience. Unfortunately, the network's latest attempt, the sci-fi drama Beyond (Monday, Jan. 2 at 9/8c), which will be available to stream all at once à la the Netflix model, isn't likely to be the vehicle that takes Freeform to the next stage in its evolution.
Created by Adam Nussdorf (Once Upon a Time in Wonderland) and produced by Tim Kring (Heroes) and David Eick (Battlestar Galactica), Beyond follows the science-obsessed Holden Matthews (Burkely Duffield), a 25-year-old who wakes up from a 12-year coma to discover he has new abilities outside the realm of scientific explanation. These powers, which early on appear to include (but are probably not limited to) being able to punch the ground really hard to knock people over, melting plastic bobbleheads with his mind while he's sleeping, and even setting a house on fire while unconscious at a party, put Holden on a dangerous path, one that includes a mysterious and dangerous man sporting a yellow jacket (no, really, there's an entire episode called "The Man in the Yellow Jacket") and leads to a much larger conspiracy. Predictably, all of this soon puts his friends and loved ones in harm's way because no one ever gets to just enjoy their superpowers without complications.
In its early episodes, Beyond devotes a frustrating amount of time to the unfolding mystery of Holden's new powers and how they cause problems for his reassimilation to waking life after his miraculous reentrance into the real world. They focus on Holden's attempt to understand and cope with two realities, a magical one known as the Realm that exists in his mind and bleeds in to his physical existence in present day, and the one he left behind when he entered his coma but which never stopped moving and evolving even while he lie motionless.
So while he is attempting to uncover what his new powers mean with the help of a mysterious young woman (Dilan Gwyn) with a constantly slipping accent and ties to the Realm, Holden is also attempting to come to terms with a new world order, one in which his childhood best friend (Jordan Calloway) is married with a child on the way, his younger brother (Jonathan Whitesell) is in many ways his older, more experienced brother, and his mother (Romy Rosemont), now separated from his father (Michael McGrady), has become almost alarmingly devout. However, the biggest challenge for Holden may not be superhuman at all. It may actually be the fact that in many ways he's a 13-year-old boy stuck in a 25-year-old man's body, like a warped version of Freaky Friday.
Because he has been unconscious for nearly half of his life, Holden lacks the experiences and knowledge that someone his age should have. It's true that his unusual circumstances, the result of a strange occurrence in the woods after being chased by a bully, meant he was able to skip the awkward years of puberty and the potential war zone that is the high school cafeteria, but that also means he never went to college, attended a house party or even legally ordered a beer, which for many is a recognized rite of passage into adulthood. When Holden kisses a girl at 25, it's as awkward as if it's the first time, probably because it is the first time.
Freeform hopes that by releasing all 10 episodes of the show's first season at once — it will be available to stream on the Freeform app, Freeform.com, On Demand and Hulu simultaneous with the show's television debut — that fans will become enthralled by Holden's extraordinary story and binge it in entirety. But by the fourth episode, the story and Holden's character still have not progressed all that far, which makes watching Beyond feel more like a burden one must endure rather than an exciting adventure on which to embark. In light of this, it feels more likely that this rollout plan may actually be a sneaky way to convince viewers to watch more than the televised two-hour premiere event, because if people have to wait a week between each new hour, there's a very high probability they'll grow weary or forget the show even exists.
With more scripted programming than ever before — according to a recent report released by FX Media Research, there were 455 scripted series that aired in 2016 — Beyond simply fails to make a memorable impression. It is a poorly paced, poorly acted and poorly written attempt to capitalize on a genre that has matured beyond the point where the show enters the TV landscape.
Science-fiction and fantasy programs are more popular than ever before, with high profile shows like HBO's Game of Thrones and Westworld dominating discussions of popular culture long after a new episode has aired. On The CW, the age of vampires and werewolves has given way to a world in which superheroes reign supreme save for a couple of critically acclaimed hourlong comedies and a well-plotted series about the zombie apocalypse that highlights just how rote The Walking Dead has become. ABC, NBC and Fox all have at least one program that fits snuggly into the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genres, with more debuting later in the season. Hell, even FX, a network known for prestige dramas, is getting into the game with its upcoming Marvel drama Legion, a series about a man with telekinetic powers that makes Beyond look like the child's play that it definitely is. In other words: Beyond needed to stand out if it wanted to be successful, and it doesn't even stand out on its own network.
Freeform is currently home to both Stitchers and Shadowhunters, a science-fiction drama and a complicated supernatural saga based on a series of young adult novels, respectively. Neither are particularly good, with the latter being completely unwatchable at times, and in that regard, Beyond fits smoothly into the network's lineup as its second or third-best genre program, depending on the week. But when compared to the level of quality — whether we're talking production value, acting, or narrative — that's seen elsewhere, it's clear the show and its frequent use of greenscreen, which will probably conjure up nightmares similar to those endured after watching ABC's One Upon a Time in Wonderland, won't be taking Freeform to new heights anytime soon.
The seven-season run of Pretty Little Liars wasn't exactly what one would call great television, and the series certainly overstayed its welcome, but at least some of its questionable storylines were elevated into watchable moments of less questionable emotional drama. The same cannot be said for Beyond, which despite its extraordinary subject matter, remains firmly planted on the ground.
Beyond premieres Monday, Jan. 2 at 9/8c on Freeform.