‘Colony’ Showrunner Carlton Cuse Talks Alien Invasions and Nazi Occupations

Where does a showrunner go, when he has already explored serial killers, vampires, and maybe-sort of purgatory? For Carlton Cuse, the answer is simple: alien invasion.

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Left: Carlton Cuse (photo: rederick M. Brown/Getty Images), Right: Josh Holloway and Sarah Wayne Callies in Colony. (photo: USA)

Where does a showrunner go, after he already explored serial killers, vampires, and maybe-sort of purgatory? For Carlton Cuse, the answer is simple: alien invasion.

Or, maybe, not so simple.

USA’s Colony–which reunites Mr. Cuse with Lost alum Josh Holloway, along with The Walking Dead‘s Sarah Wayne Callies–is set in a not-so-distant Los Angeles, one surrounded by massive walls and occupied by an unseen force. Now, this force is definitely alien-esque, but are we walking the little green men variety? Mr. Cuse isn’t saying just yet, partially because of spoilers but mainly, according to the man himself, Colony isn’t so much about the grand concept of an alien-occupied Los Angeles, but the humans living–and surviving– inside the walls.

“The truth is, even forces that seem overwhelming can be defeated.”

Observer: As a storyteller, what is interesting to you about the idea of a city under occupation?

Carlton Cuse: This idea of, when the rules of society are upended, what are the compromises you’re willing to make to survive. That’s really what Colony is about. It was this interesting and somewhat universal idea that every country in the world has either been a colony or colonizer. We as humans have this wonderful ability to subjugate each other when given the opportunity. So the show is about exploring the things we’re willing to to survive in a situation like this. What do our moral imperatives become?

How much went into grounding these large sci-fi concepts with the idea of a family?

Ryan Condal, my partner on this, and I spent two years coming up with ways to steer clear of the territory of other shows that are in the genre. We’ve seen a number of alien invasion shows–V for instance, or Falling Skies–and they take this topic head on. We thought it would be much more interesting if we didn’t see these invaders, or see them very rarely. Wouldn’t it be smarter for them to install a proxy human government, as countries do and have done in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. What would the tendencies of that proxy government be, and how much would they be acting in their own self interest? What we really wanted to do was bring it back to this family. It’s really a family drama first, an espionage show second, with a dollop of science fiction. We were trying to say “If you take a situation like Paris under Nazi occupation, that’s really interesting. But is there a way to do that in a contemporary context?”

How important was the idea of a resistance?

I think that’s always what happens. The truth is, even forces that seem overwhelming can be defeated. A great example is Vietnam. [The United States] had massive industrial and military superiority but things didn’t go too well for us there. The indigenous Vietnamese population became very smart about how to fight against an invading army that had technological superiority. They came up with ways to counteract that, and effectively resist this occupation.

And you really do get a sense of that in Colony, that whoever this occupation is they are overwhelmingly superior to us, especially with the great image of the walls around L.A.

The walls were intended to be very metaphorical. It was just a great symbol for us of the level of oppression. You have the incongruity of the walls and Los Angeles, with the blue skies and palm trees and, ironically, there’s almost this kind of aspirational quality to Los Angeles. It’s interesting reading accounts of people who lived in East Germany; older people missed the security of East Germany [under Nazism]. You had a job, you knew what the rules of society were, there wasn’t street crime. Even under extreme totalitarianism there were things people appreciated.

We also didn’t want to start in this dark, dystopic landscape because we’ve seen that premise already. To go back to the Paris example, it’s not like when the Nazis stormed Paris they blew up all of the city. The city was still beautiful, there were just Nazi storm troopers marching down the broad avenues and past the glorious architecture. We wanted to create that same feeling. Los Angeles is still sunny and idyllic visually, but the walls suggest the oppression.

I’m interested in how much world-building you’ve done past the walls of Los Angeles, and how much that will play into the first season?

Like I said we’ve been talking for two years, so we definitely do have the entire arc of where the show is going. I can’t really break that down into seasons because it’s still early, but we have a clear plan. We know the answers to all these questions: Why these invaders are here, what they’re doing, the state of the rest of the world. But ultimately, that’s not what the show is about. It’s not about revealing those mysteries, it’s about this family surviving in this world. Those answers will unfold over time, but they’re not ultimately what the show is about.

Just in a broader sense, since you oversee not only Colony but Bates Motel and The Strain–not to mention Lost in the pastwhat aspect of a show creates a loyal fanbase? 

Ultimately it’s really simple; it’s just the characters. People want to come back and spend time every week with these people. It’s weird because it’s such a simple lesson, and the premise doesn’t matter very much. The premise creates opportunities to see characters in interesting ways. But if you look at a show like Friends, or Cheers, they were premises that are so simple, and elemental. People hanging out a bar, a bunch of friends hanging out in New York. Seinfeld is just four friend hanging out. What’s interesting is networks are always looking for the cool, twisty idea but fundamentally audiences really just decide “I want to be a part of this family every week.” And it can be a work family, or a literal family, but ultimately that’s how viewers bond with television.

Colony premieres on the USA Network Thursday, January 14, at 10 PM EST. 

‘Colony’ Showrunner Carlton Cuse Talks Alien Invasions and Nazi Occupations