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Colony: Carlton Cuse previews USA's alien occupation drama

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Paul Drinkwater/USA Network

USA’s new drama Colony is not your typical alien-invasion drama. That’s because the initial incursion is long over. Humanity capitulated to what are known as the Hosts, who wiped out all higher levels of government and law enforcement before elevating a group of people into power, known as Collaborators, who are given luxuries and protection in exchange for keeping each bloc of humans in line. In short, it’s much like Nazi-occupied France. At the show’s core, however, Colony is really about how life goes on after the most devastating takeover in history.

The series, which stars Josh Holloway and Sarah Wayne Callies as Will and Katie Bowman, centers on a family torn by opposing forces — the Collaborators and the Resistance — who must make difficult decisions as they balance staying together with surviving the struggle of the human race. How will this family soldier on? Why don’t they give up on this bleak existence? EW caught up with executive producer Carlton Cuse to get the scoop:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What can you say of who or what has taken over Los Angeles, and how much do other cities around the country and world look like this?

CARLTON CUSE: The whole point is our characters don’t know what’s happened to other places. They don’t even know very much about what’s happened outside of their own bloc. Los Angeles is divided into three blocs — the L.A. bloc, the San Fernando bloc and then the Santa Monica bloc. Those three blocs together are all walled in and comprise the L.A. colony. Are there other colonies that exist outside in the world? Is the rest of the world colonized or a wasteland? To what degree is this happening in other places? Those are all mysteries that will unfold across the life of the show.

Is it that uncertainty that helps perpetrate fear and keep the humans in line?

I think so. The scariest thing for all of us is the unknown — whether it’s the [idea] that there’s going to be another terrorist attack, but no one knows when, where or if they’re going to be directly impacted, or your doctor says, “I need to do a test, you could have a problem,” and then you’re waiting a week to get the results and you’re just in a horrible state until you get the information. The sense of not knowing things is really the most fearful condition that we exist under. That’s part of how these occupiers are functioning. First of all, they don’t really care very much. They need to control this population, but they’re not too concerned about their obligation to inform them.

Also, I want to say that there might be a misconception from the pilot, and maybe we didn’t make it clear enough. These invaders, these occupiers, are not omnipotent. There’s a lot of analogous situations where people with what seems like a massively technological advantage have not done well in conflict with other people. Two prime examples: Vietnam, we clearly had a massive technological advantage, but it didn’t work out too well for us there, because the Vietnamese were incredibly clever and adept about figuring out how to fight against us. Another example would be the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. They had these massive helicopter warships that were like flying tanks, but all you had to do was give an Afghan a Stinger missile and that completely neutralized this massively technological superior piece of technology. They fought the Russians out of their country. I think that our characters don’t yet know what the specific strengths and weaknesses of these invaders are, but that’s something that they will learn over time. Will Bowman is coerced into working for the occupation, he sees an advantage there to, over a long time, gather information that will be useful to him. He figures, the more he knows, the better he will be able to exploit whatever opportunities exist.

The Hosts are, what we assume, of alien origin. Will we learn more about when they first arrived and what they want?

Yeah, absolutely. Those mysteries are not what the show’s about. In Lost, the mystery of the island and why these characters were there was the central mystery of the show. Those mysteries will be answered. They’re not really what’s at stake. What’s at stake is can this family survive in a world that’s been completely upended?

Will we ever get to meet the Hosts?

Yes. Again, it’s not a show about us versus the aliens. We feel like that show’s already been done. Very intentionally,[co-creator Ryan Condal] and I have focused our storytelling on the conflicts that arise when humans are empowered to subjugate other humans.

You’ve said before that you were inspired by Nazi-occupied Paris. With that said, can you talk about how the Hosts are keeping everyone in order — not just the police force known as the Redhats, but also with rationing, curfews and culling?

The walls are a form of control in the same way that if you pen cattle on a range, you’re controlling their movements and their ability to interact with other cattle. Our Hosts are smart enough to recognize that it’s far better to install a proxy government than attempt to govern this group directly. They’ve empowered this other group of people to be in charge. The show is also exploring the ability of power to corrupt those who hold it in a situation where the constraints and accountability are minimal. Over time we’ll understand more about how everything works, but for now, the fundamental idea is that they’ve empowered humans to basically be in charge of this colony of other humans. That’s really the central idea. And we start exploring what other character conflicts arise out of that.

How different are the blocs that are separated by the walls?

To some degree, we very intentionally did not start with the L.A. bloc in a very dystopic state. One of the things that you’ll come to realize across the first season is that [collaborator] Proxy Snyder [Peter Jacobson] has a relatively enlightened approach to how he wants to maintain control over the population. His attitude is if you give people the fundamental necessities that they need for life, they’ll have less desire to rebel. Things are pretty good. There are clear exceptions. For instance, under this occupation, there is very little tolerance for people who are sick or weak. But people have jobs. He opens up the bars. You can take a bus across Los Angeles in six minutes. The sun is shining, there’s palm trees, there’s no street crime. That’s the irony of totalitarian society, that there is a sense of security and certainty about life that people respond to even in the absence of personal liberty. His attitude is, “I’m going to make things pretty good for the people who live in my bloc.” One of the things that will be explored across the first season is, “Does that work? Is that a good idea? Is that going to be effective for him?” He traverses a lot of ground. He’s wonderfully villainous at the beginning of the season, but at the end of the season, I promise you’ll have a much more complicated set of thoughts about Proxy Snyder.

It’s interesting because it’s not just a division between the humans who are collaborating and those who are part of the resistance, but there’s also a group of people that fall right in-between.

The vast majority of people are just trying to lead their lives. That’s what was interesting about Paris in World War II. You had the Vichy government that were collaborating with the Nazis, and then you had resistance fighters who were actively trying to subvert the Nazis, but there was this vast group of people in the middle who were just trying to go about their lives, keep their heads down, stay out of trouble, just survive and try to figure out a strategy in which they could make it through this circumstance. That’s really interesting because, in those circumstances, you’re constantly put in moral dilemmas. What are the compromises each individual is willing to make for their own survival?

Why go on in this world? What is the point of living if you’re just living under subjugation? Where do they find the hope to go on?

Interestingly, right in the pilot, proxy Snyder says, “This great day is coming.” The Hosts have propagated this message that this great day is on the horizon. What does that mean? Does that mean they’re going to be gone? Are they going to do something that’s fantastic for humanity? It’s a mystery what that means, but there’s definitely hope in that message. Honestly, I think people don’t give up under tough circumstances. One of the essential virtues of humanity is this idea that we have unexpectedly deep reservoirs of tenacity and resolve to face adversity. Most people believe that, even in the most adverse circumstances, there’s some hope that they’re going to come out the other side better off. That’s why these people endure suffering and oppression, whether it’s in a Soviet Gulag or a repressive African dictatorship or North Korea. There are countless stories of people who, when facing seemingly overwhelming oppression, still manage to have hope and an expectation that something better is coming. In a way, it also ties into this fundamental human myth, literally the religious myth that the messiah in some form will return.

Tell me about the dynamic between Katie and Will as they raise a family in this new world.

That’s the spiraling strand of DNA that runs through the center of the show is the relationship between Will and Katie. That’s what the first season is all about. Will is coerced into working for the government, and that upends this family. It’s something that Will sees as an opportunity that he can exploit, and Katie sees it as being morally challenging that he’s doing that. Really, at the center of the season is this examination of this relationship. Will it survive all the twists and turns that come to it as a result of this occupation? That’s really where the focus is. Ryan and I like to talk about how this is a family show first and espionage show second, add to the top a dollop of science fiction, and that’s really how we see it.

I have to imagine that being a collaborator is probably frowned upon by most people. Is it worth it, though, for this family because it could lead to finding their son, who was lost in the Santa Monica bloc during the invasion?

Yeah, they have a huge stake in this. Will makes a deal that if he helps the occupation, proxy Snyder is going to help him get his kid back. That seems like the best option he has right now. There’s nothing more important for him than to get the family reunited. He has to take that promise on face value.

Is the ultimate goal for the resistance to purge the world of the Hosts?

Ryan and I are trying to make nothing black and white, so the resistance is not a completely homogeneous movement where everybody has the exact same goals, thoughts and methodology, and that leads to interesting conflict downstream in the series.

Colony debuts Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on USA.