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Should You Watch SyFy's 'Helix'?

By Brock Wilbur | TV | March 19, 2014 |

By Brock Wilbur | TV | March 19, 2014 |

There’s a show on SyFy that appropriates elements of The Thing into a long form drama. If this intrigues you, join me in a celebration of the flawed genius that is HELIX and catch up before the finale.

Okay, “genius” may or may not be a stretch. I recognize Pajiba has done little coverage of this series, despite entering its 11th episode. What once appeared to be a limited mini-series is now looking at 13 episodes in total (we assume?) so let’s gather the forces of this presumed one-off and circle the wagons.

First timer Cameron Porsandeh has crafted an Antarctic exploration of a deadly epidemic that may have extraterrestrial origins. Guided by Ronald D. Moore (of Battlestar Galactica’s) fame, this series takes the CDC of The Walking Dead and subjects them to weekly personal deconstructions of what it means to process a contagion. While the power players are annoyingly diffuse, the central mystery plows forward with little regard for the casualties in its wake.

Here’s the bad about the show: it’s run the course already. There’s an interim arc of five episodes that could be excised with minimal impact to the series, betraying a pace which started too fast without enough fuel to power it, making it hard to convince others to join late in the game. A more intriguing game at this point is not “What solves the mystery?” but rather “How few episodes can you screen with maximum impact?”

Here’s the good: it still might be worth it.

As expressed, the series ramped up way too quickly for a 13-part narrative with a limited story, and wound back the clock by subjecting us to entire episodes of figure-outy nonsense that felt deliberately stuffed to extend a quickly burning flame. But again, said flame is a thing of beauty. The idea of a scientific outpost experimenting beyond international law taps into all kind of Bioshock-y, Ayn Randian mental gymnastics. The result claims similar attention, via a series of super-powered zombie monsters that maintain a familial connection to the chief scientist, as played by perplexingly gruff Billy Campbell (the goddamned Rocketeer; suck on that Nazis!)

What has made my viewing of HELIX fascinating has been two-part. First, as a former music supervisor, the choices within are staggering. In all honesty, these easy-listening elevator music arrangements of songs meant to terrify will easily be the most memorable contribution to pop culture that HELIX offers. This is American Horror Story level dedication to ironic audio placement, without shoe-horning Stevie Nicks into the plot. If you thought the lounge version of “Get Down With the Sickness” in 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake struck a chord, HELIX hopes you’ll hit that same note up to three times per episode. I don’t mean to downplay the element; it is genuinely fun.

Secondly, HELIX occupies a specific place because it was the first show I marathoned post-True Detective. I like this, because I’m holding a SyFy channel production to the same standard as a show which never wasted a breath, a beat, a gaze or a scene. To watch this shit-show next is to accept a level of disappointment but to also come to grips with what I agree fulfilling entertainment takes the shape of. Entire half-hours of this experiment pass, betraying a showrunner burdened with a runtime he cannot fulfill, but my continued investment proves a love of super-sciency nonsense that remains unfulfilled elsewhere. It’s been far too long since dudes and ladies in white lab coats held up squirming beakers over rock’n’roll montages; to the point I realized HELIX fulfills a science wet-dream that has gone unattended since Breaking Bad. They aren’t making meth now; they’re make a methyl solution to a problem that may envelop us all; so why aren’t we giving it more attention?

Starting around the seventh episode, with the introduction of Star Trek’s Jeri Ryan, the show breaches a soap opera point of unspecific or unknowable threats made from each major character towards their nearest inferior, which refuses to let up over the following few episodes. This is the aforementioned fat that could easily be trimmed. As great as Ryan’s mustache twirling (and literal teeth-sharpening) becomes, it is all rendered useless so quickly that the discerning viewer is made immediately aware of the extended red-herring the season’s runtime has committed towards. Again, if you can excommunicated the truest villain the series has known and find yourself back where you started, we can all agree the journey wasn’t worth the scene chewing.

I sound overwhelmingly negative on the experience, and a part of me harbors such concerns, but when I think forward to myself two weeks in the future, I harbor an unshakable belief that this endeavor will have been overwhelmingly positive. As a viewer, I believe that these final two episodes represent the closure of a story that will leave all that took the trip fulfilled and appeased, if only because each step towards the middle has been so faulty, that no network would have entertained the concept without a worthwhile pay-off within its limited frame. I don’t mean to dismiss the narratives within, but each story of a scientist lead astray within the larger tale has left the viewer with little more than a piece of a puzzle; one that we all hope is redeemable towards the finale.

To summarize everything that I’ve put down in this article: I’ve seen what great television can be, and this is not it. However HELIX does represent a science fiction mystery that is the cornerstone of everything I unabashed love, and I eagerly engage, hope against hope, in the idea this story was sold on a great beginning and end, and was hopelessly mismanaged in the interim for the sake of the medium. In this context, HELIX represents both a great disappointment in TV storytelling but shockingly also a redemptive arc in what it could take to bring something beautiful to a mainstream outlet.

So why are we writing about it? I believe the finale of this show carries a much greater weight than any contemporary airing production. More accepted long-forms like The Walking Dead are guaranteed their time to see experiments through, but some easily dismissible show like HELIX represents a bigger leap for risk-taking; for unknown talent shooting in the dark; for the possibility of more horror that considers science seriously, or at the very least a world where SyFy sinks comparable coin into honest envelope pushers as it dedicates to the Sharknados its finances rely upon.

While there isn’t an episode I could grade above a “B+”, this is a series which has consistently provided narrative turns I couldn’t call out two steps ahead, even when the machinations that enable such twists are at the hands of characters who vary from super-genius to aspergers depending on how much narrative they want to leak. It’s story medication on a schedule, and the filler does poorly at being filler, but the end points spell out an adventure worth taking.

HELIX is the best better-than-middling show, that lives in the promise/threat of what its final two episodes could become. The beauty of recommending it is recognizing the flourishes is promise in each episode that betray an abridged season that would have set the world on fire. Instead we’re offered the version the medium was best positioned to offer, and on behalf of all worthwhile science fiction for the next three years to come, I hope HELIX closes itself.