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Threshold: Trees Made of Glass, Part 1

“I like to worry about things from all angles.”

Threshold aired in 2005-2006 as part of CBS’s plan to capitalize on the Lost-inspired craze for complex genre TV. Like many of the shows that attempted to capitalize on Lost’s magical formula of character ensembles, mythology, philosophy, and pseudo-science, Threshold failed to gain the viewers or the following necessary to succeed. Of the thirteen episodes produced, only nine even aired.

But Threshold isn’t a bad show. It’s not great: it varies between high camp and tawdry tackiness, between standalones and mythological complexity. (CBS was obviously uncomfortable with long-form storytelling.) What is it about? An alien invasion. Don’t expect little green men, though: these aliens work more subtly, using complicated harmonics and a pretty light show to change brain chemistry and turn humans against their own race via an extraterrestrial brain download. These aliens are smart, have a deep love for fractals and mysterious plotting, and look just like us. Oh no!

Threshold was created by, among others, Brannon Braga, the controversial writer responsible for TNG, FlashForward, and Terra Nova. While I can’t speak for TNG, I do know what went wrong with FlashForward and Terra Nova: lack of long-term plotting, lack of willingness to trust the audience, lack of understanding that mysteries must seem organic rather than plot-convenient. Weirdly, this earlier entry in Braga’s playbook skirts most of those errors, although it’s possible the show would have declined eventually. But something about Threshold keeps me coming back for more.

Perhaps it is the first-rate cast, which favors actors that those of us with a thing for offbeat TV love: Carla Gugino is Molly Caffrey, a contingency analyst who specializes in “worst case scenarios.” She has assembled a Michael Crichton-esque team of specialists to help assess and defeat the alien menace. Peter Dinklage is linguistic and mathematical genius Arthur Ramsey with a tendency towards vice. Robert Benedict is engineer Lucas Pegg, the kindly fish out of water who just wants to get back to his boring life. Brent Spiner is Nigel Fenway, lab guy. Brian Van Holt, as the meathead love interest, is the weakest link, but that lack is made up by Charles S. Dutton’s performance as the bureaucrat with a heart of gold who just wants to save the world. And if Tyrion from Game of Thrones and Chuck from Supernatural weren’t a big enough draw, each episode has at least one surprisingly familiar guest star. This episode alone includes William Mapother, Kevin Durand, and Seamus Deaver.

“Trees Made of Glass” originally aired as a two-hour pilot, and it’s fairly effective. The cold open introduces the concept of otherness that marks any alien race worth its salt, and contrasts neatly with Molly’s professional, intelligent, but not field-ready demeanor. As the team comes together and investigates, interesting—and sometimes frightening—details emerge that reveal the true nature of the alien threat, as well as the true nature of each of the characters.

Molly is my favorite, because she manages to be beautiful, intelligent, and witty all at once, which is exactly what I aspire to be. She delivers some of the more sarcastic lines with a bit of an edge, which is a nice change from the tepid humor typically allowed heroines in pop culture. She originally treats the aliens as an intellectual problem, albeit one that requires a strong dose of both empathy and heart. She alludes to a traumatic disaster in her own past as the inspiration for her career in contingency analysis, and she looks after her team both because it is the right thing to do, and because a happy and functioning team is the most pragmatic way to save the human race.

The revelation that low-grade exposure to the alien signal altered the theta waves within Molly’s, Cavennaugh’s, and Lucas’s brain waves turns the global into the personal. Molly may not have had much of a social life to begin with, but it’s only going to get harder with her brain altered in a mysterious way that seems to connect her to the aliens, at least in her dreams. The final scene of the episode is horrifying—horror-movie horrifying. And it effectively communicates exactly how weird, how creepy, and how threatening this alien menace is.

I’ll review all of Threshold this summer. It is, I think, perfect summer viewing. In the meantime, here’s Billie’s review of the pilot from back when it first aired.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. It's so weird but I really remember this extremely short-lived show. I remember wanting to give it and Invasion a try that year as they were both trying to copy the Lost formula and unfortunately only got around to watching Threshold. (On another note was Invasion better or worse? I know it lasted longer)

    You really took the words out of my mouth. I don't know what it was exactly about Threshold but I always found myself coming back to it. Something about the premise, the intriguing cast, Carla Gugino, the epic pilot cliffhanger, just hooked me for the long run. I was really sorry to see it go as I remember the finale was quite cool. Looking forward to reading your reviews Josie and catching up.

  2. Invasion was the rom-com equivalent to this... It was a lot more character driven as i remember... but then again i only saw 2 episodes of that, while i stuck around for the whole 13 episodes (they were all broadcast where i live, with great marketing campaigns no less). I LOVED this show. I remember getting goosebumps at a certain shot at the end of episode 6 i think where Carla's character explains how the game was just taken to a whole new level. It was superb.

  3. I think Threshold started off a lot more engaging than Invasion. The latter series had only one or two really compelling characters/performances at the start (William Fichtner was fantastic as Sheriff Underlay!), and it took a good 6 to 7 episodes for the mythology to suddenly get a lot more intriguing.

    Threshold, on the other hand, had a really fantastic cast with a great lead and a slew of wonderful supporting characters that made you want to come along for the ride. (But I totally forgot that Brian Van Holt was in this! It makes me want to go back and watch it again just to see Bobby from Cougar Town as the meathead love interest!) I found myself drawn to the characters much more quickly with this one and think it could have been more intriguing and unsettling over the long haul. But ultimately it was a poor match between show and network. As Josie points out, this just wasn't a good fit for the CBS formula or audience.

  4. Wow! Comments! I really hadn't expected them; I didn't know anyone else liked this show.

  5. I liked Threshold a lot, and I really thought it would take off. It was so disappointing that it got canceled. And I'm very pleased we're adding another quality sci-fi show to the site, so yay!

  6. More comments ! LOL

    I've NEVER heard of this show...until I've become a regular reader of this blog.

    I've only watched a few eps and I'm glad that it's character driven, because I'm having an overdose of "we're being invaded and we have to defend ourselves" shows. But hey, it's entertainment as they say !

    Quite paradoxical from a scifi fan... (oups and I HATED Prometheus !!! (ya, but loved Alien & Blade Runner))

  7. .....and you can't go wrong with Brent Spiner !

    I strongly recommend watching reruns of Night Court, where he plays.....nah ! I'll let you find out : a far cry from scifi LOL

  8. celticmarc: you didn't like Prometheus either? Was it the fact that some of the characters acted like the dumbest people on the planet or was it something else? :)

    I have Threshold on DVD and out of the three "Lost" clones that came out that year (Threshold, Invasion, and Surface), I found Threshold the most interesting even though as others pointed out, it didn't really seem to fit on CBS. Invasion took too long to get going and Surface just seemed very random.

    I had wished Threshold had continued especially after learning about the future storylines and ideas that were being planned had the series continued, e.g. the series would have a different name each year (Threshold becomes Foothold becomes Stranglehold). The various levels of infection was also interesting (full infectees, fatal mutants, hybrids, and dreamers).

  9. Matthew,

    How many free hours hours do you have so I can answer your question ? LOL

  10. @Matthew Where did you read that post-mortem?! I can't find it online and i'm dying to read it

  11. Mario: There's some great extras on the DVD set of the series where they talk about the plans they had for the show if it had continued. Also the unaired episodes (4 of them) that are on the DVD set also reveal more about the direction the show was going.

    If you can't get a hold of the DVD set, the wikipedia entry on Threshold has a pretty good summary.

    I both liked and didn't like finding out this information. It's great to read about it but then you think to yourself that it'll never make it to production. :D


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