“The Expanse” Contracts

Falling budgets, failing ambitions, and a faltering show

I confess that when The Expanse was rescued from cancellation by a monomaniac who can afford his own space program, I let myself dare to dream a little: one of my favorite shows was about to get big.

In so many ways, SyFy intended The Expanse to be the next Battlestar Galactica: a critically-respected marquee space opera that would imbue the whole network with original-content mojo. The parallels are right there in the cast, most of whom are disposably-pretty Jamie Bamber types (Who is James Holden if not Apollo?) but they sprung for a few Edward James Olmoses in the form of Thomas Jane and Jared Harris. Wes Chatham readily distinguished himself as the show’s Starbuck, the breakout screen presence of the budget-friendly cast members.

That budget had never been small, or not exactly. The production team called it “The Expense” in reference to the creators’ insistence on pricey physics-porn CGI effects, as well as the diegetic 3D graphics that litter the screen. The particle-and-debris-laden spaceship sequences showed a marked maturation over BSG’s, which were essentially virtual motion-control model work with a better sense of scale. Every teensy set still reeked of SyFy’s unmistakable basic-cable production values and the bacon-y aroma of Canada — I resent the notion that Toronto is a futuristic version of New York on so many levels — but the production design stuck the landing.

Although SyFy definitely got their BSG, earning a critical and audience response as rapturous as the reviews of Miller’s stupid hat were scathing, they weren’t making this show in 2003 anymore. They baited a handful of people into paying per-episode for the season that wasn’t free on Prime yet, but there was no remote threat of physical media sales that could ease the pain of a bloated budget. Furthermore, in addition to the loss of that once-reliable box-set cash — this guy has all of BSG buried somewhere in his parents’ garage — their Amazon streaming deal left them with nothing but the profits from first-run commercial sales. Those didn’t count for much in an era of production where the 23-episode season is dead as a doornail.

So SyFy, unthinkably to the half-million viewers who tuned in every week, cut loose their mojo-bearing series after it had covered the plots of only three of nine books. Just as the in-show discovery of interstellar travel threatened to blow the whole setting wide open, we learned that the next phase of the story was not to be. Fans were wailing in agony at the news, myself included.

Fortunately for us, one of the show’s biggest fans happened to have a streaming platform and more money than God.

Once Jeff Bezos personally took over the show, I got excited. Surely he would throw money at his new toy, in order to realize his mental image of the material like any fan of a book-to-TV adaptation constantly fantasizes of doing. There is no working Unit Production Manager alive who is in the business of spending more money if they can avoid it and Amazon had been party to the show’s existing production values throughout, thanks to that awful streaming deal, but Jeff specifically couched himself as a Medici-style patron when the show was rescued, or at least his press team did.

The show’s increasing prestige over its SyFy run had attracted David Strathairn for S3, so I let myself believe that the God-Emperor of American retail would demand similarly outstanding actors in every uncast role (Burn Gorman’s pick-up for Season 4 seemed to confirm that). When I got my first taste of MicroLED virtual-environment production from The Mandalorian a month before The Expanse’s Amazon debut, visions of Gravity with guns danced through my head. It would be a Cinderella story, a basic-cable wretch transformed into the belle of the ball via the infinite resources afforded by her fairy godfather’s pact with Satan.

As it turns out, the revived Expanse is the first half of a Cinderella story: an orphaned show comes under the auspices of a cruel stepmother who feeds it porridge, beats it with broom handles, and tells it to be glad it wasn’t thrown out in the street.

I was willing to cut the show some slack after season 4, which was more or less a bottle season: Cibola Burn was set entirely on (and over) the planet Ilus, and a North American show wasn’t going to make the now-well-travelled trek to Planet Iceland. I thought the grassy stretch of Ontario where they filmed Ilus was about as much as I could expect, even if they were noticeably stingy with the CGI postcard shots of another world.

But it still it felt padded-out as hell, between Bobbie’s arc in a mall food court on Mars, Drummer and Ashford’s hunt for Inaros on already-built sets, and the talking-in-rooms BBC political drama that was tacked on to give Shohreh Agdashloo something to do. Those claustrophobic side plots felt particularly odd on a show that declined to cover the whole first novel in the first season, rather than fail to do the ending justice. Conversely, the previous season had compressed Abbadon’s Gate into a seven-episode arc (they knew they were getting cancelled) so why was Cibola Burn’s spatially-limited planetside tale flogged out to 10 episodes with time-killing dialog scenes?

After this just-completed season, the answer is pretty clear: the powers that be have given them just enough money to limp towards an ending, and not one Queen-faced penny more. The only additional luxuries they’ve allowed our heroes are a nonstop barrage of clunkily-delivered f-bombs and four female nipples per season. It borders on dismal.

For one thing, the show is giving up on its signature hard sci-fi trappings. There were always compromises: making the “crash couches” from the books, which spin the occupant around to prevent rapid momentum shifts from crushing the human body, would have involved hanging them from multi-story sets that need a building inspector’s sign-off, further requiring a patience-testing (and unsafe) waste of production time to get the actors in and out of gyroscopic gimbals. The solution was those reclining dentist chairs, which foreclosed the visual representation of many of the books’ crash-couch-based plot points, but they got the general concept onscreen while looking cool enough.

I think of those chairs every time I see Marco Inaros preening on his flagship, swinging around theatrically on his metal industrial platform like some background skank in a hair-metal video, conspicuously surrounded by railings that could easily kill him in a car accident, let alone a high-g space combat maneuver. It’s proof positive that a show that made its bones with accurate space physics barely has the money or will to try anymore.

And speaking of the aforementioned skank, Keon Alexander is to a bloodthirsty rebel messiah as Adrian Grenier is to a bankable A-list movie star: the show can call him that until it’s blue in the face, but I’ll never believe that shit for a second — his luxurious hair notwithstanding. The show always filled its minor roles with nameless Canucks, per Canadian content laws, but this show has turned into one big Workin’ Moms supporting-cast crossover since Amazon took it over (granted, Mean Nanny and Amos had some great chemistry). This wouldn’t be such a huge problem if the goofiness of the Belter Accent wasn’t inversely proportional to the talent of the actor delivering it.

And on the topic of accents: you’ll forgive me if the interim UN Secretary General was a beloved cast member of Little Mosque on the Prairie or something, but nothing screams bargain-basement to me like a Canadian actor who can’t suppress their ‘sawrys’ and ‘aboots’ while they’re rallying the people of a shattered Earth to rise from the ashes. Instead of hiring a name character actor who could really sell the dude’s palpable underqualification for his new role as leader of humanity, they settled for an affordable actor who was palpably underqualified for his role on the show and called it even — presumably cutting around every loose ‘eh’ that snuck into his nervous delivery.

That delivery was made particularly egregious by the fact that his “This is our independence day!” speech was delivered to like 15 people hanging out around the Luna atrium-spaceport-memorial-gym-cafeteria, the only substantial set they built for this season. While a big extras day in a small auditorium with some UN flags hung around the stage (like they did in Season 3!) wouldn’t exactly be an overindulgence for such an important sequence, if you’re not gonna spend money on an actor who can actually sound inspiring, why spend money on an audience to pretend to be inspired?

And on the topic of underindulgence, let’s talk Amos Burton.

It’s inevitable that splitting up the main cast will make a show look cheaper, as the budget has to stretch across more locations with fewer shooting days to devote to each plot. That season of The Walking Dead where they’re all off on their own in the woods comes to mind, and for all the legends of how Game of Thrones’ budget increased exponentially year-by-year, the far-flung second season makes the first look like Return of the King. That being said, the producers of GoT wisely begged HBO for enough money to put the (cheapest possible version of the) Battle of the Blackwater onscreen, because they knew the whole season would contain a gaping black hole if they didn’t. Bringing me to Baltimore.

As a Charm City kid, I’ve always taken a weird sense of pride from the fact that the show’s best character is also a 6'3" white goon from Balmer [full disclosure: I have met two people in my entire life who unironically pronounce it that way in normal speech]. Even though every line about Baltimore in 2300 CE makes the entire city sound like the Murphy Homes at the height of the crack epidemic, I was giddy to see it onscreen. The hype only intensified when I saw the global-warming-flood sequence in the credits had been changed from New York Harbor to the Chesapeake Bay.

Instead, what I got was a brief shot of postwar mid-rise projects — all of which were explicitly demolished in The Wire, a show that I can state to a near-certainty was the Leafs-loving producers’ only source of information about Baltimore — peopled with extras in clothing that didn’t look current, let alone futuristic. Then there was a single scene in Erich’s condo, in a building that I wanna say is called ‘The York at Humber River Place’ in real life. Mobtown’s final appearance was the scene on that rooftop that allegedly had a flooded cityscape beneath it, where Erich’s definitely-not-Baltimorean ass unconvincingly rattled off a list of Baltimore locales that unequivocally would not survive a ten-meter sea-level rise.

Somewhere in there, I believe I might have been informed that asteroids hit Earth and killed a billion people. I mean, screw my hometown: the only visual representation of a cataclysmic attack on my home planet was a Star Trek-style camera shake in a similarly cramped set.

Baltimore needed to be the season’s Battle of the Blackwater. They needed to spend a little cash to create the tactile experience of the shithole that Baltimore will become, and then to redecorate that set as a disaster zone — second unit could’ve even shot around the ruin-look set so that they actually had some disaster footage for the off-planet characters to watch. Going back to the SyFy era, the bowels of Ceres or Eros weren’t exactly huge, but they had a sense of place, and though the Belters sound even more like white Canadians doing a bad Jamaican accent than the song “Informer,” they were at least trying to create a culture out of our time. Instead, Baltimore was the show’s Qarth, a halfhearted attempt to get a narratively unavoidable sequence out of the way as cheaply as possible.

That was made all the more noticeable by Peaches and Amos’s picaresque cheap-screentime adventure, reminiscent of that cursed TWD season, which led them to a wedding venue outside of Toronto apparently containing a spaceship. Every moment of those sequences felt like the show trying to save money, especially the gun battle choreographed to involve no reverse shots whatsoever, while Peaches murdered a dozen people entirely offscreen. Also, this may be a nitpick, but the thing I said earlier about the clothes in Baltimore not looking futuristic? The New Hampshire refugees were even worse: those puffy jackets they wore made them look like extras from Fargo.

The tenth episode was the one that really crystallized my disappointment, because of how much it impressed me. E0510 contained the first real space combat I’d seen all season despite plenty of loose talk about an ongoing war, and budget-friendly nibbling around the edges gave way to legitimate forward motion of the main plot. I was being shown and not told, at long last. I hit my brother up immediately after I watched it — he got me into the show in the first place, but he hadn’t caught up yet after Season 4 took the wind out of his sails — and told him that it was the first really good entry of a season I’d been complaining about for two months.

I was actively looking forward to the next week’s episode, for the first time this year… and once that week had passed, I fired up Amazon Prime in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, only to discover that the next episode wasn’t available. Confused, I checked my phone to see what time the new episodes went online. It was then that I discovered, to my boundless dismay, that the tenth episode was the season finale. I don’t know how I avoided the usual warning labels to that effect when I watched it, but my disappointment was crushing either way.

I guess I had just assumed that they were back up to 13 episodes because they had so much more material this season, but it hit me all at once: the flaccid gunfight in New Hampshire was supposed to be penultimate-episode sizzle. The first episode of the whole Amazon era that really felt like the thrilling best of the SyFy years, not to mention the first one to get me into the swing of the season, was a belated attempt to close strong after slithering through the most affordable version of the book plots. ’Twas a major bummer.

I seriously had no idea that I had reached the end. Dominique Tipper’s a solid actress as part of the ensemble, and her work in her zero-g rescue scene was very effective, but I can’t say that it felt like like the culmination of a major character’s season-long plot, let alone that it justified four straight episodes of low-rent torture porn. As for Holden, well… there’s a reason I got through this whole thing without mentioning the ostensible main character’s actual plotline once.

So I am without hope for the successful compression of a four-book arc into a further 10 episodes of TV, particularly if they once again get this cheap about it… but since my “y’all are fucking up a former work of genius” write-up may have put some energy out into the universe that forced Silicon Valley to move out of the incubator and get its shit together, here’s hoping I can accomplish that once more with this elaborate complaint.

Please, Amazon: don’t try to lowball the onscreen representation of an interstellar war, and don’t skimp on the space porn. If there’s a microLED soundstage up and running anywhere north of the 49th parallel, please rent that shit with extreme prejudice and slather my screen with on-point visor reflections. Please hire someone with genuinely serious screen presence to play Admiral Duarte, and if they have to be Canadian for legal reasons, at least get someone of Colm Feore or Victor Garber quality. Please, just prove to me that this past season was some misbegotten abortion caused by Covid-era production, and close it out strong. You brought the show back to finish telling the story as it was being told, not just to be able to say that it was technically completed.

And I feel like Dan Levy could crush a Belter accent, so if he isn’t completely out of your price range by now… the man is just a treasure.

Unverified. Uncredentialed. Unpublished. Uncompromising.

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