It's no accident if, while watching Defiance — the first new Syfy drama in eons that has a scope you could actually describe as fantastic — you sometimes feel you're trapped inside an elaborate video game. After all, this new series (Monday, 9/8c) was developed alongside a new video game that inhabits the same fictional universe.
And true to its nature, Defiance excels in moments of big action: battle scenes in which aliens and humans team to blast a faceless enemy off of a cliff face, or a freaky encounter in an upcoming episode with a nest of monstrous "hell bugs." Gamers will be forgiven if they're tempted to pick up their controllers and try to play along. It's pretty much the point, no? The TV world of Defiance also offers plenty of intrigue. The story starts 30-odd years after Earth was invaded, occupied and "terra-formed" by seven distinct and combative alien races, destroying cities and altering the planet's landscape forever. The setting, a burgeoning mining town named Defiance, sits atop the ruins of St. Louis, with the battered but still-standing Gateway Arch an emblem of endurance and survival.
Exotic details — one of the more conniving alien tribes looks like an Edgar Winter cult — nestle within the comfort zone of an old-fashioned Western, as a brash new "lawkeeper" (Grant Bowler, enjoyably mixing John Wayne swagger with a Han Solo snark) tries to keep peace amid clashing extraterrestrial cultures and competing, sometimes violently criminal interests. He and his feisty adopted alien daughter (the terrific Stephanie Leonidas) add life to what is otherwise a surprisingly colorless cast. Much of the casting is disappointingly flat, and the character development as shallow as in any video game. A trite Romeo-Juliet storyline, involving the mine owner's daughter and an alien bad boy, is particularly bush league. Still, ambition counts for a lot in this expansive genre, and Defiance gets better with each episode — a trip underground to the remnants of "Old St. Louis" next week is especially cool — so I'm hoping this can defy the odds and become a hit.
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TOP OF THE NIGHT: Nature is beautiful, human nature considerably less so, in the shattering two-hour finale of the Sundance miniseries Top of the Lake (9/8c). The hunt for the missing and very pregnant teenager Tui intensifies in the New Zealand wilderness, as detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss, emotionally vulnerable yet ferociously determined) clashes with Tui's corrupt father Matt (Peter Mullan, sensational), and the truths that emerge are never what anyone expects. Robin, who has just lost her mother and feels preternaturally maternal towards the elusive Tui, turns for wisdom at an especially low point to the peculiar guru GJ (Holly Hunter). Her advice: "Stop. Thinking." That's not an option, and as more strata of disturbing evil are revealed in the final chapters, your own mind will likely be racing.
The other major finale, also two hours (but unavailable for preview), is for TNT's Dallas (9/8c), in which the Ewings come together to bring J.R.'s posthumous master plan to fruition. In so doing, we're promised that the season's big whodunit — "Who Killed J.R.?" — will be answered.
SING OUT: NBC's powerhouse The Voice (8/7c) moves into its next phase, the "battle rounds," with the coaches enlisting famous friends (Sheryl Crow with Blake Shelton, Pharrell Williams with Usher, Lady Antebellum's Hillary Scott with Adam Levine, and Voice Australia coach Joel Madden with Shakira) to help advise their teams and prepare for the combative duets, after which the coaches must decide which is the strongest singer and send the other one home — unless a rival coach snaps up the loser in a "steal," which is almost as fun a gimmick as the blind auditions.
BACK STORIES: It's an uneasy family reunion on Fox's Bones (8/7c) when Booth's mom (the always welcome Joanna Cassidy) re-enters his life after nearly a quarter-century. "Didn't hate you, Mom. I missed you," insists the earnest FBI guy (David Boreanaz) as they rehash an upbringing marred by a history of "violence and hatred" that drove her away from the family. An empathetic co-worker muses, "That's gotta be complicated," which is more than can be said for the case of the week, involving a stockbroker who stripped on the side. ... CBS' Hawaii Five-0 (10/9c) spends much of this week in flashback mode, as Steve McGarrett (Alex O'Loughlin) goes rogue across the treacherous North Korean border to retrieve the body of a lost buddy from his Navy SEAL days, recalling a mission that directly led to McGarrett's return to Hawaii, making this episode something of a series prequel. With plenty of intense military action, it's also a good argument for someone to do a Navy SEAL series. (Cue the violins for the too-short-lived military thriller Last Resort.)
THE MONDAY GUIDE: The premiere of Travel Channel's self-explanatory Burger Land (10/9c) visits one of my all-time favorite joints: Pasadena's classic Pie 'N Burger, where the patties are formed by smashing the meat with a tomato juice can. Much is made of the butterscotch pie, but it's their peach that transports me to pie heaven. ... "She was irresistible," says Gloria Steinem of the iconic Wonder Woman, as PBS' Independent Lens explores the sociology of female heroes in comics, TV and movies in Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines (check tvguide.com listings). ... It was only a matter of time before psycho sheriff Roderick came under scrutiny on Fox's The Following (9/8c), and that's exactly what happens this week, but the fallout puts poor little Joey back in danger. ... As if we needed a reminder that the celebri-dancers on ABC's Dancing With the Stars aren't pros, a new twist this week (8/7c), titled "Len's Side By Side Challenge," forces the contestants to perform part of their routine alongside a pro dance couple. ... Could the latest perp on ABC's Castle (10:01/9:01c) actually be Bigfoot? Probably not, but that won't stop this crew from having fun with the idea. ... Storyline of the week that most makes me want to take an instant shower: On CBS' 2 Broke Girls (9/8c), Caroline is understandably freaked when she gets a rash after sleeping with her ex-boyfriend. This isn't going for broke, it's just desperate.