NOTE: It goes without saying but, still, the following post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Ascension.
In the age of social media spoilers and remixed versions of old properties, it’s hard to be surprised by anything on television anymore. Sure, sometimes we find ourselves enthralled by the journey of characters such as Walter White, Jax Teller, Hannibal Lecter and Daenerys Targaryen, and that submission to journey is what can lead to surprises that include dragons and the moral complexities of letting a drug addict choke on her own vomit - but it’s rare in today’s small screen to see anything that grabs hold of us from the beginning and never lets go, like the early days of The Shield or 24.
Enter Ascension. For the uninitiated: Ascension follows the citizens aboard the U.S.S. Ascension, a massive spacecraft launched by the Kennedy administration in the '60s, in hopes of achieving a 100-year mission of reaching a new planet that would allow humanity to live on, should the Cold War ever turn hot. However, as the ship left the solar system, it remained stuck in the ways of the 60s, thus leading to what’s essentially been sold to the viewing public as “Mad Men in space.” But things aren’t as simple as Syfy’s marketing would have us believe. As it turns out, the truth behind the new series is far more interesting than originally suspected, as the show actually focuses on a massive science experiment launched in the 1960s that tricked people into believing they were in space when in fact they never went anywhere. For the last 50 years, that society unknowingly lived on a vessel that never left earth, and every movement and decision made inside the ship has been tracked from the outside via video streams.
During the months of marketing that led to the premiere of the series, Syfy could have spilled the beans in order to attract a wider audience because, truthfully, the pitch of “Mad Men in space” is rather dull and sounds more like something the South Park manatees would have thought of. However, had the network made that reveal prior to the series premiere, no one would have tuned in because the conversation would have shifted to something along the lines of, “it’s Mad Men in space meets The Matrix.” In marketing there’s no winning, so instead, Syfy didn’t even bother trying.
Considering its response to a simple 1.8 million viewers for the first episode (which isn’t low for Syfy, but hardly the 3.5 million Warehouse 13 once saw - in the summer, no less), the network’s expectation for viewership was always low. It knew the marketing strategy it went with was never going to be the most ideal for the sake of gaining viewers, but it was going to be the ideal for making the ones who tune in come back for episode two. After that, everyone knew the social media audience would do the rest of the heavy lifting.
That’s the beauty of Ascension, it held off on ruining the best thing it had going, and the show was made better for it. On first watch, Ascension is a fairly standard series. It’s got somewhat well-constructed world, with characters that feel like people we may want to see more of. But during the first three-quarters of the premiere, the whole thing feels like another case of series premise being put over character. However, the moment everything comes to light and the big reveal is made, the entire series changes.
In one moment, we go from watching a science fiction series to watching a psychological thriller, and that’s glorious. Like the series it promoted, the marketing was a complete lie, and there’s something to truly admire about that in 2014. When networks these days are so focused on attracting viewers by any means necessary, we all need to step back and celebrate when one chooses to go against the grain. By holding off on the big moment until it actually occurred in context, the audience was able to forgive the series for whatever faults the rest of the episode may have had, and invest in tuning in for the next phase of the mission (the series only dipped by 27% in overall viewership between nights one and two). This is what we need more of on television, and it’s interesting to think it took Syfy, of all networks, to show us that.
Ascension aired December 15 - 17 on Syfy. You can check out a preview below: