Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Cult-TV Review: Chris Carter's The After (2014)

In the 1990s, writer/producer Chris Carter had his fingers on the pulse of the modern science fiction and horror genres -- and of the national Zeitgeist itself -- when he created The X-Files (1993 – 2013).

That classic series dealt not only with the then-hot topic of alien abduction, but also with the more grounded issues of conspiracy, domestic terrorism, and the new-found place of genetic science (and DNA) in the law-enforcement/forensic process.

Carter’s second dramatic series, Millennium (1996 – 1999) was similarly trail-blazing. The Lance Henriksen series cast a critical eye on, among other things, affluent American suburbia at the turn of the century, and the secrets roiling beneath the gated, but otherwise seemingly placid surface.  What was found there? Apathy, insanity, religious zealotry and facile delusions about “home security,” to name a few.

Having watched and admired Carter’s TV programs for many years now, I often describe the feeling underlying both The X-Files and Millennium as anticipatory anxiety. 

At the time the programs aired on network television, the economy was booming, the middle class was thriving, and America was building, per President Bill Clinton, a “bridge” to the 21st century.

And yet, despite these undeniably positive augurs, both Carter series expressed a kind of swelling uneasiness about how things were going, the inescapable feeling that a storm was approaching, and that, furthermore, the signs of that storm were all around us…if only we had the insight to recognize them.  . 

Today, Carter’s latest production, the pilot for a series called The After, is available for your review at Amazon.com, and it’s plain once more that this artist’s greatest gift -- beyond his penchant for crisp, revealing De Palma-esque camera moves -- is his capacity to step back and cannily observe the prevailing winds impacting the culture. 

Then, after noting these things, Carter reflects these qualities back at us in a science fiction or horror milieu.  Essentially, he is a modern day Serling or Roddenberry, an artist who uses what many still consider “fringe” interests (like horror and sci-fi) to reveal aspects of human nature.

Coming now, long after the “storm” that overcame America last decade with the War on Terror, the appropriately-named The After is the book-end artistic work to The X-Files and Millennium.

It is a meditation not about an oncoming apocalypse, but, instead, its arrival. With the anticipatory anxiety background of The X-Files and Millennium perhaps in mind, The After suggests that the “storm’s” arrival was never a matter of “if,” only of “when.”

In other words, today is doomsday.

The world has changed tremendously since the 1990s, and there’s a lot more noise today, for one thing.

It’s noise from the net, social networks, iPhones and tablets, and other technological advances. There’s also a lot more partisan noise, rancor between and among Americans who view the world very, very differently. 

On first blush, and after just one episode, The After seems to concern the ways that modern American life erects barriers that block cooperation and trust.

Again and again throughout the pilot story, technology acts as a barrier that slows down the (crucial) learning process during the onset of the crisis.

In brilliant, frightening and wholly unexpected fashion, The After also reveals the first chapter of a mystery about the force that may be behind this worldwide apocalypse.  The nature of that force is uncertain.  It could be spiritual, alien, or hallucinatory, but from the first chapter alone, we know it is terrifying.

“Something terrible is happening.”

The After follows Gigi Genereau (Louise Monot), an aspiring actress, as she auditions in Los Angeles for a role in an upcoming film.  She doesn’t get the role, and doesn’t want the role that is eventually offered to her.  She returns to her hotel feeling defeated, and plans to return home to her husband and daughter in New York.

But then things start to go wrong. 

Along with a police woman, a clown (Jamie Kennedy), and a few others, Gigi becomes trapped inside the hotel elevator when the power unexpectedly goes down.  She manages to escape with the others, only to end up locked in the hotel garage with a lawyer (Adrian Pasdar), and an escaped convict, Deed (Aldis Hodge).

Another escape is managed, and once outside Gigi learns that the whole world is undergoing some kind of catastrophic crisis.

This unspecified crisis has already overwhelmed government and local authorities. With phones and the Internet down, Gigi and the group of diverse survivors, attempt to find safe haven at a nearby mansion. 

But dangers lurk outside, both from roving gangs, and from a “dark shadow” in the woods.

It’s not a matter of if, but when…”

I wrote above a little about the subtext underlying this pilot episode. Many times throughout the fifty-five minute production, technology acts as a barrier, trapping and snarling groups of survivors.  The elevator breaks down. The hotel parking garage is sealed. The phones and Internet are down. Water faucets aren’t working.  Food is spoiling in the refrigerator, from lack of power.

This is the total collapse of our entire modern infrastructure, and it vexes the characters because they have become totally dependent on modern conveniences, and on the safety (apparently) afforded by law enforcement, government, social media, and so forth.  But the world has changed instantly, and for the most part, the characters can’t cope.

The pilot episode does an especially good job of expressing the idea of technology acting as a barrier, from frequent close-ups of Gigi’s phone, to imagery of characters trapped behind gates, or half-opened elevator doors.  These shots visually symbolize the shock and panic associated with a catastrophic meltdown of Order.  One spectacular and feature film quality shot featured in the pilot episode pulls back from Gigi to reveal thousands of people milling up, aimless and afraid, in a city square.  The pull-back just keeps going, as the breadth of the chaos becomes apparent.

The characters in the drama are a diverse group, a group that reflects 21st century America. There are people of color, people of alternate sexual orientation, wealthy people, a “foreigner” and people from different regions (such as the Deep South) represented in the mix. All are viewed here by the other characters – at least initially – in terms of stereotypes. 

In other words, what these characters know of their fellow countrymen seems to originate, largely from media stories about them. Again, the underlying notion is that in modern America, our sense of community is fractured or even imperiled by the technological barriers we erect; from the screens we perpetually gaze at.  We don’t even know who are neighbors are, or what they are about.

What happens when those tablet or iPhone screens go dark, permanently?

When we face each other -- really face each other for the first time in a long while -- what do we see?  How do we understand one other?

The After begins to explore this notion, and I’d like to see a series that follows up on the premise.

Since Carter is of the early initiators of long-form or serialized television arcs (along with JMS and a few others), it is intriguing to note the bread crumbs that The After drops in its pilot.

I don’t want to reveal them, for fear of ruining the surprise. But some mysteries concern, broadly-speaking, the reasons why these particular individuals should end up together, the idea of missing time (a policeman indicates that the apocalypse started a day ago, but this isn’t reflected in Gigi’s experience…), and the appearance of…well, something.

Along the way towards developing the enigma, we also get canny references to The Book of Revelation, and creepy high-angle shots that suggest the group of survivors is under the microscope of an all-seeing, malevolent eye.  An earlier moment seems to presage this realization, as one character observes a helpless bee in a swimming pool, and sympathizes with its plight.  We are no different, she suggests.

At this point, as I noted in my introduction, the dark force haunting The After could be alien, or religious, or simply supernatural.  One thing is for certain, however: the shape that the force takes – or at least “reflects” back at the characters -- is a nice little shout-out to Millennium.  But clearly, if The After goes to series, I’m going to have to indulge in some refresher studies on Scripture and study of religious iconography.

How all these pieces fit together is something I’d very much like to explore, and so I hope The After goes to series. The pilot is easily one of the best I’ve seen in years, since Lost in 2004, or Veronica Mars the same year, actually.

If you want to explore the questions of The After, visit Amazon.com and give it a go. In closing, I will simply state this: the pilot episode made me feel tense and clutched for the first forty-five minutes or so, and then, during the climax, that anxiety was supplanted by shock, and then the stirrings of real fear.

The monsters are here.


  1. It took me a while to warm to "The After"'s first hour if I'm being honest, finding it a little too reminiscent of some other recent series at the outset. (Going back much further, Dixon also pointed out a similarity to the Twilight Zone episode "Five Characters in Search of an Exit", highlighting it as a possible influence. It's an episode I've yet to see, but I may now have to skip to it soonest!) By the end of the hour, though, I was most definitely hooked. I found myself musing on the archetypes represented by the main ensemble, and imagining the considerable promise that a full season might hold.

    You do a wonderful job of setting "The After" into the rest of Carter's career here, in ways I'd not fully contemplated. Here's hoping he scores a much-deserved hit with this series. With fare like this on offer, we have one more reason why the world really needs to experience more of his unique creative vision.

  2. A third of the comments on the Amazon page & now on here talk about needing time to "warm up" tot he characters or they had "no chemistry" ...which I find ironic since I perceived Carter setting up the tension between perception & reality. The nightmare of the actress in the very first scene clues us in to that what we see and what we think we see may not be the same thing. As to chemistry ...we are so enabled by our techno gadgets to be able to avoid interaction. And then completely dependent on them to tell us "what's going on" The city could be any major metro area,we guess it might be LA since our main character is there for an audition..which she is too "young" for or not believably bad ass enough....both states of being her life will become dependent on in the next 24 hours....No one seems to have any survival skills, not least of them observational (only Deeds recognizes the clown without his make-up...). As for the end? alien? demon" hallucination? Latin speaking? "The die has been Cast" Suetonius crossing the Rubicon ....I want to see more...

  3. Thanks for this finely penned assessment. Encouraging news from the mind of Carter. It's so disappointing to see such quality shows never given a chance. I'd like to see The After have a good shot. Great read today. Tku.

  4. I watched "The After" a couple of days ago and was impressed by how well the helplessness of the city's people was portrayed. It's scary to think just how lost we would be without electricity, running water, phones, etc. I think people would last about as long as the batteries in their cell phones before complete societal breakdown would occur.

    The biggest problem would be that we would all turn on each other. That in itself would be more destructive than any large scale terrorist attack, alien invasion, or catastrophic natural disaster. For reference of what I mean, check out "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street", one of the first season episodes of "The Twilight Zone". Or to a lesser extent "The Shelter", again from the original Twilight Zone. Of course, Twilight Zone's interpretation is a little more white-picket fence in it's delivery, but the message is there.

    If "The After" does get picked up as a series, I expect it will be stretched out over a long period of time with an incredibly disjointed story arc. I can barely watch TV anymore because every show is a soap opera, a never-ending story. I could rattle off a large list of shows that never ended or were cancelled before they concluded. It's got me to the point where I'll only watch movies, which I associate with short stories or anthologies.

  5. Thank you for these great insights on the return of a master storyteller of the 1990s! The After definitely fits in Carter's corpus: if X-Files and Millennium are "pre-apocalyptic" and Harsh Realm "post-apocalyptic", The After is simply "apocalyptic".

    The story definitely holds promise, it's difficult to judge on a simple pilot on a concept that seems to need several episodes to present the full extent of what the show is about. However, the (very) Hollywood-mainstream way of directing and photography didn't help me appreciate this pilot, whereas the pilots of Millennium and Harsh Reaml in particular were among the best hours of television.

    Carter must have definitely planned ahead how next episodes would pan out. I can see episodes focusing on individual characters and how they deal with what's going on and having each their own interpretation as to what is going on (one character thinking religion, another aliens, another conspiracy, ...) and why, with this "why" being the core of the show. And there are some very small details that the pilot doesn't linger on but that later episodes might come back to, either as flashbacks or with episodes being structured differently than a simple linear progression of time: for example (light mini-spoilers), the man that sees them trapped in the parking but leaves without helping them, or the sinlge-shot CGI wolf/beast that rushes past the camera when they first enter the dark woods towards the end. Overall, it feels like everything could be addressed and wrapped up somehow in a mini-series format, but an on-going series might be stretching it too far.