By James Hibberd
Updated December 20, 2011 at 01:54 PM EST
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Terra Nova

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UPDATED: Terra Nova might still get saved from extinction has been cancelled. Below we list six ways the show went wrong — and how things could have been salvaged for a second season (the studio is still shopping the project to other networks).

Terra Nova has been a self starter in the ratings on Mondays and its family-friendly nature makes it an easy pitch to advertisers. Yet the show’s overall adult demo ratings have disappointed, and sources say the network has been creatively unsatisfied with the show, as well. But in an odd way, some of Terra Nova‘s problems have worked in its favor — everybody involved with the project agrees there’s room for improvement and, therefore, possible ratings growth.

If renewed, expect Fox’s order will be along the lines of the first season’s 13 episodes, not a full 22 like most other shows.

So far, the discussion has focused on ways to make the show better, and the compelling two-hour finale was a great step in the right direction. Here are our six suggestions for making Terra Nova a must-watch show for season 2:

1. Age up (at least a little). During most of the season (the finale was an exception), Terra Nova tried too hard to target kids. There’s a difference between being family friendly and having story threads that will annoy anybody old enough to be in Fox’s target 18-to-49 demographic. This doesn’t mean Terra Nova has to play like a prehistoric Breaking Bad (as awesome as that would be), but if you’re putting characters’ lives in jeopardy each week, you need to tell the story in manner that’s reasonably convincing to a modern adult audience. You already have dinosaurs, so getting kids to watch is easy. You’re more likely to keep kids watching something that feels reasonably smart and sophisticated (like, say, Terra Nova forebears Jurassic Park and Avatar) than you are trying to get adults to endure scenes like little Zoe whining in an air duct while her dad sings the “Go Away Spider Song.”

2. Make sense. This goes hand in hand with No. 1, but deserves its own entry because a grown-up show can still have lots of plot holes (the latter seasons of 24, for instance). The comment boards on Terra Nova have plenty of readers making sport of the show’s contrivances — from the way characters constantly sneak in and out of a guarded high-tech colony that’s supposedly secure against infiltrators, to unconvincing acts of betrayal that are always quickly resolved and forgiven, to the silly producer-driven mandate that characters can never kill dinosaurs even if their lives are in imminent danger. The more holes there are, the more a viewer’s faith in the story drains away. We know we’re watching a fantasy, but we still have to believe it a little.

3. Fear and Wonder. This one is pretty huge. You’re 85 million years in the past! Cut off from civilization. Surrounded by exotic forms of life that are both wondrous and threatening. So why don’t we feel that? This isn’t about adding more CGI fish or showing giant slugs in the infirmary. This is about little moments that make the world feel convincingly alien. It’s something executive producer Steven Spielberg has always excelled at (remember in the Terra Nova pilot when colonists went into shock after coming through the portal due to the atmosphere change? That was one of Spielberg’s suggestions — it cost nothing, yet helped convince us that this is a different world).

4. Deepen the characters. There are few Terra Nova characters that can’t be described with a word or two (especially the chaste female characters), and their relationships with each other and motivations seem equally simple — nearly every major character conflict this season boiled down to somebody doing something bad only because they want to protect a family member or loved one. There’s nothing wrong with characters having love and respect for each other, it’s one of the things we like about the show, but viewers need some complexity and drama too.

5. Less CGI, better CGI. I’d rather see one dinosaur every four episodes that I totally believed than something roaring every hour that I don’t quite buy. The special effects on Terra Nova aren’t bad — they’re downright unprecedented for a TV show and at times can be quite strong — but they’re often not quite convincing either. One reason is because the show often (not always, but often) doesn’t stage its CGI scenes for maximum emotional impact and the cast doesn’t seem to fully appreciate what they’re supposedly seeing (see “Fear and Wonder,” above). If the Lost team pulled off making silly black smoke scary, Terra Nova can make a T-Rex scary. Alternately, no matter how harmless a creature is, the camera seems to always remain transfixed on it rather than letting any CGI element play as a natural part of the environment — as if to say, “Look! It’s a special effect!” Again, the finale was an improvement — the use of the rampaging dino at the end was quite fun.

6. Focus on your strength: Jason O’Mara. The producers made a wise decision casting Jason O’Mara as Jim Shannon; he holds Terra Nova together. We really like him as a frontier sheriff trying to protect his family and community. Unlike the toothless Sixers, when Shannon shows emotion, we feel it. Give Shannon challenges, really hard challenges, and let’s see him struggle to solve them using his strength and smarts. The rest of the cast should mostly consist of supporting characters who help and hinder him. He’s your Captain Kirk. RELATED: ‘Terra Nova’ season finale recap, plus the results for our Give Taylor an Eyepatch Photo Contest

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Terra Nova

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