After taking a month off, the Obscure SciFi Primer returns with a strange cross-genre offering, Century City. Century City is a sci-fi legal drama–quite possibly the only sci-fi legal drama ever, actually. Airing on CBS in 2004, it managed to film a mere 9 episodes, and of those, only 2 actually made it on TV before it was canceled, so it never really had a chance to succeed at all. Think of all the awful shows you’ve watched throughout your life: even those likely got a 13 episode upfront order produced. So was Century City really that bad, or did it simply get shafted even worse than Firefly and all our other cut short favorites? Let’s find out.
Set in 2030, Century City is about a new law firm that’s set up shop in Century City, California, actually a region in Los Angeles. While the location was obviously picked for its “sci-fi sounding” name, it is a real place (named for 20th Century Fox), so don’t hold that against the show. The main characters include Tom Montero (Nestor Carbonell, who played Richard Alpert in Lost), a former congressman who’s readjusting to life outside politics; Lee May Bristol (Kristin Lehman, who has quite a few sci-fi series on her resume), a genetically engineered woman who is part of a pilot project to see how engineered individuals can fit into society; Lukas Gold (Ioan Gruffudd, the Reed Richards of pre-reboot Fantastic Four), Lee May’s one-time flame who’s now married; Hannah Crane (Viola Davis, who will be playing Amanda Waller in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie) and Martin Constable (Hector Elizondo), the two most experienced partners at the firm; and Darwin McNeil (Eric Schaeffer) who’s just kind of an unlikable jerk most of the time. Guess we’ll never know if he was supposed to grow out of that, but I suspect he was. He also has a low-grade AI assistant named Voxy.
As you can see, with the exception of Lee May’s backstory and Voxy, it’s a pretty typical legal drama cast. The sci-fi aspect comes through mostly in the form of the cases they take on, which deal with new technology and how it runs up against outdated laws, often with obvious parallels to real world issues. For example, the first episode deals with a man who wants to grow a clone of his son for the express purpose of harvesting its liver for transplanting. The clone is confiscated before developing beyond a cluster of cells (we’re talking way pre-fetal here) and much of the arguments the opposing lawyers put forth reflect typical arguments against abortion. Other times it steps up to ideas that didn’t yet have clear parallels, but were definitely going to be problems in the near future, such as embedding micro-GPS chips in children that ostensibly keep them from being kidnapped but actually end up being used by helicopter parents to spy on their childrens’ every moves. That’s something that is totally possible now, by using Google’s Location History on smartphones, but wasn’t yet at the time, so in some ways it actually managed to stumble on some real issues.
There aren’t many familiar faces for sci-fi fans on the show, likely because it’s more legal drama than sci-fi adventure, but I did spot Rosalind Chao (Keiko from TNG/DS9) and Felicia Day (who has small roles in a ton of geeky things these days), plus B.D. Wong in the pilot. I bet if the show had run longer, they might have started trying to get the actors behind iconic sci-fi heroes to make appearances, echoing the same kind of rating stunts pulled on Law & Order with name actors. They probably could’ve gotten some cross-promotion with Shatner, at least, since he was starting Boston Legal around the same time.
- While they didn’t get to do too many cases, the ones that we see are usually fairly interesting, and there’s always a primary and a secondary case to follow, which generally helps the odds that one of them will be worth watching. All of the episodes have something going for them as a result.
- For the most part, the characters are a weak positive. Lee May and Lukas are the most interesting, followed by Tom. Hannah and Martin are okay, and don’t get much focus, but aren’t actively detracting; the only one who’s really a negative is Darwin, who tends to be sexist and bigoted and just all around obnoxious. Like I said, I think it’s clear there was a plan for his character to grow, but since it never happened, all we have is the annoying setup period where he sucks. However, that seed of character development is what makes him tolerable. All in all the cast is par for the course on a standard legal drama.
- Unlike some other recent shows that have tried to take a serious drama approach to sci-fi, Century City was not afraid to take stances on various issues that they examined. That’s a necessity of the legal drama format, I suppose; they present both sides of the debate through the adversarial process, and ultimately must reach a verdict by the end of the episode. But more so than just presenting these issues in a purely academic capacity, there are actual characters being sued who can demonstrate how this problem might affect a normal person.
- Since it’s so episodic, there’s no cliffhanger waiting for you (for once). There were continuing plotlines from episode to episode, but they aren’t important enough to leave you frustrated.
- Have you seen a sci-fi legal show before? No, you haven’t. It’s worth watching for the sheer novelty alone.
- Despite being only 10 years old, the show is already starting to feel dated. I’m not talking about pacing or its look, as that still feels quite modern; rather, the views of some of the characters, and the issues they chose to examine, are ones that already feel a little backwards. I mentioned Darwin above, but he’s not the only one with some backwards views when it comes to characters with transgendered tendencies, for example. There’s also an episode dealing with “the gay gene” and how parents getting genetic screenings on in vitro fetuses are reluctant to have gay babies, leading to a decline in numbers amongst the gay community. Keep in mind this is only set in 2030, so even the oldest kids that could possibly be affected by that technology are high school age. They explicitly mention the consequences of this on “the artistic community” invoking stereotypes that were already on the way out in 2004. It’s hard to imagine the level of tacit homophobia still present in Century City being so commonplace in 15 years–and that’s why it feels dated.
- One of the downsides of this legal drama format is that the characters need to be able to support their positions with legal precedents for the trial. That means one of two things: taking real cases out of context to provide support for their sci-fi argument (invoking the 13th amendment to claim an AI programmed by a deceased man can’t be treated as company property, for example) or just flat making up weird future laws and cases that they don’t have time to fully explain. The latter is essentially like technobabble in a standard sci-fi space opera, in that it’s ultimately meaningless to the audience but necessary for the plot to function. There’s got to be a better way to handle this, but admittedly I can’t think of one.
- The show’s attempts at comedy are a little pathetic, honestly. The secondary case is typically designed to provide the comedic relief of the episode but it just doesn’t accomplish that very well. This also leads to our glimpses into the wider world that Century City takes place in coming across as silly and hard to take serious. Oprah Winfrey is the president? Really? Yes, it’s clearly done as a joke, but things like “who is the president” are a little too important to waste on throwaway gags, don’t you think? Even the characters treat that fact like it’s a punchline. Stupid things like that also distract from the actual important aspects of the episode.
- blending two genres is often a risky prospect, and that goes double for genres that have radically different audiences. The kind of person who watches your run-of-the-mill network legal drama like Law & Order is not going to appreciate the sci-fi aspect of the show and won’t tolerate the debate-like form the show’s examination of issues takes. Think about it, though–when L&O and other such shows pull the “ripped from the headlines” technique, they typically simplify that very real situation into one that’s black and white, easy for the viewers to follow. Of course those viewers weren’t going to appreciate discussion of complex issues of the future. But that’s exactly what sci-fi fans like you and I want! in the end, neither audience will be happy with the result and no one watches it. It’s the same problem that was faced by Almost Human not long ago and led to its demise.
Fans of the show often say it was too smart for network TV and doomed to fail; I’ll definitely agree that it was doomed, but I’m not sure being too smart was the problem. It’s just a mismatch of target demographics, using the same kind of thinking that leaves us with wrestling on the Syfy channel. CBS has a reputation these days as the “Lowest Common Denominator” channel, with all their shows being formulaic clones of each other (NCIS, CSI, etc.) and going for the lowest bar in comedy. That’s brought them great success, but it’s also exactly why a show like this would never work on that channel. The audience this appeals to is just too narrow to compete with the wide net that those shows cast. A show like Century City could be absolutely AWESOME in the right hands, and if you ask me, this is the kind of thing that would do really well on HBO where it could tackle controversial issues of the day (and tomorrow) in the way they deserve. I know everyone likes to say “that show would be great on HBO,” but this really plays to the premium channel’s strengths. I’d definitely be open to watching another attempt at this genre crossover.
A quick reminder of my rating system: a 5 represents must-see–a “hidden gem,” as it were. A 4 is good, solid television. A 3 is “cult classic” stage, where the show’s appeal is likely limited to a specific group. A 2 is flawed, but fun, or even “so bad it’s good,” depending on the series and its release timeframe. A 1, of course, is avoid at all costs. Century City is pretty hard to find, since it’s never been released on DVD, but I found it on youtube here, under the appropriately named “hard to find” channel. It’s worth pointing out that those are in broadcast order, and as usual they were aired out of order originally, which leads to a bit of weirdness in the running subplots. If you want, you can watch them in the chronological order from Wikipedia. It’s not likely to affect your viewing one way or the other, though.
Have any suggestions? Or are there any little known shows you’re a fan of that you’d like me to cover? Leave them in the comments, or send a tweet to @RetroPhaseShift. To be notified of the next entry in the Subjectively Obscure Sci-Fi Primer, you can subscribe to the RSS feed by clicking here.