Starring Debra Messing, Adam Storke, Frankie Faison, Larry Drake, Vincent Ventresca, and Roger Howarth
My rating: ★★★1/2 stars
A series ahead of its time.
Most people don’t remember this show. It aired for a half a season in the winter and spring of 1998. I usually describe it to people as the “entry on a Debra Messing’s IMDb page between Ned and Stacey and Will & Grace.” So why revisit it?
- It’s a very good show.
- Its existence and failure illustrate changes in the TV landscape over the last 20 years.
- It offers a politically relevant footnote.
The premise of the series is that climate change has led to the evolution of an advanced hominid species that look like humans but have superhuman intelligence and strength and are dedicated to the annihilation of the human race in order to ensure their own survival.
Messing plays Dr. Sloan Parker, a bio-anthropologist who uncovers the new species while investigating a murder linked to particularly heinous serial killer Randall Lynch (Roger Howarth—who really should have had a bigger career over the last 20 years). Suspending disbelief of Messing as someone with a doctorate in a scientific field isn’t as hard as might be expected because the action of the show picks up right away and viewers can get caught up in the narrative before they have a chance to say, “Really? A bio-anthropologist?” It is a miscast (particularly since Messing’s comedic talents go completely to waste), but it’s not a fatal one. In the unaired pilot to the show, Sherilyn Fenn played the Messing role, but I don’t think she would have been a better choice.
Joining Dr. Parker in the investigation of her discovery is the mysterious Tom Daniels (Adam Storke—best known as Julia Roberts’ smarmy boyfried in Mystic Pizza), who presents himself as an FBI agent. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Daniels is a member of the new species posing as a federal agent, as his true identity is revealed halfway through the first episode. Daniels has been assigned to kill Dr. Parker, but he finds her fetching and, instead, joins her quest to protect the human race. Storke plays Tom with a distinctive flat affect that codes the character as Other. It’s an effective characterization that some viewers might interpret as bad acting but is quite the opposite.
The romance between Sloan and Tom is a through-line during the run of the show and particularly engrossing. It’s reminiscent of the Buffy (a vampire slayer)/Angel (a vampire) romance that was developing concurrently on Buffy the Vampire Slayer series in 1998. Prey ended before the relationship was consummated, thus, avoiding the tricky issue of interspeicies intercourse involving the protagonists. Is it bestiality if the other species looks human? We’ll never know.
Rounding out Dr. Parker’s team are Detective Ray Peterson (Frankie Faison), a police detective who jumps on board to the idea of a new species a little too easily (but I’m nit-picking); Dr. Walter Attwood (Larry Drake), Dr. Parker’s supervisor who secretly works for some government agency that is never identified; and Dr. Ed Tate (Vincent Ventresca), Dr. Parker’s colleague and longtime friend. The series makes the interesting and novel choice of presenting Sloan and Ed as merely friends with no romantic complications. Ed is not the obvious also-ran of a Sloan/Tom/Ed triangle, which would have been trite. Prey shows that men and women can be colleagues and friends without any hint of romance.
When Prey aired on ABC in 1998, the non-soap serialized drama was in its infancy. Oz, HBO’s first foray into the format, started in 1997, as did BTVS, another early entry into the format. And sci-fi genre shows were virtually unheard of on major broadcast networks. Furthermore, I doubt Prey could have sustained full seasons of 22 episodes each. The only season produced feels full at 13 episodes. But, I could see it working perfectly as a series on a basic cable or streaming network with 10-13 episodes per year. In many ways, Prey was two decades ahead of its time.
The first and only season runs at breakneck pace through about three years of storytelling in 13 episodes, including the origins of the new species, terrorist sleeper agents, human collaborators, biological warfare, neurological programming, species interbreeding, cloning, and gene altering. If the series had continued, I would have complained about it burning up story too quickly. As we got only one season, I’m glad it tackled the number of plot elements it did. Each episode touches on one of these issues, which contributes to the larger serialized plot. One episode I found particularly interesting involved the resurrection of the Spanish influenza virus from corpses buried above the Arctic Circle as a potential way to annihilate humans (“Sleeper”). The weakest episodic plot involved cloning, a huge issue that could have provided the basis for a series itself and should not have been contained in a single episode (“Vengeance”). Nevertheless, the compartmentalization of the episodes was minimal compared to other programs at the time. The long narrative arc of the series was always paramount.
In 1998, DNA science was relatively new to the general public. The series relies on this novelty as a way to derive audience interest. Today, the DNA aspect would be just a tool of the narrative rather than a point of interest. The technical parts of this science fiction show fall more on the fiction side than the science one, but I’m not person who particularly cares about scientific accuracy. Those who do might feel the need to throw things at the screen. The series also presents inaccuracies about the relationship between humans and Neanderthals, but, to be fair, the understanding of that relationship has changed dramatically in 20 years and is still a rapidly evolving (no pun intended) area of study. More interesting to me is the treatment of climate change. In the series, it is the inciting factor that led to the development of the new species, and it’s a given. I’m old enough to remember in the 1990s when manmade climate change was accepted as an uncontroversial reality. It’s only after 20 years of misinformation that it’s become politically controversial.
Unfortunately, today, Prey is only available in poor-quality bootleg copies that can be ordered on the internet. Every now and then, some enterprising soul will post the series on YouTube, but it quickly gets taken down. I suppose there’s no money in making available a failed 20-year-old series. However, in this era of remakes, continuations, and reboots, Prey would be an optimal choice as a series whose potential was not fully realized at the time it was made.
NOTE: The Mexican-American grandmother in the episode “Revelations” is played by Messing’s future Will & Grace costar Shelley Morrison (Rosario).