It is by no means a sin to open your TV series with an on-screen text offering what’s known as an info-dump. For as unappetizing as that pair of words may be, excellent stories have begun this way before (“Oceans are now battlefields,” anyone?) and will again. What seems ill-advised is to front-load your series with enough textual density that a humble television critic will be compelled to rewind and read your info-dump a second time before shrugging and deciding to plunge ahead. I’ll catch up, that humble television critic might think. Has anyone ever been so naive?
It’s thus a worthwhile exercise simply to try and summarize the premise of the new AMC Plus series Moonhaven. After all, it’s essentially all the series does across its six-episode first season — explain itself and its world repeatedly while elucidating remarkably little. This much is clear: The year is 2201, and Earth has become nigh-uninhabitable. A century ago, the moon was terraformed and colonized, with that colony being observed and managed by history’s most advanced artificial intelligence, an entity known as Io (or is it I.O.? This is the least of the series’ baffling ambiguities). The purpose of the mission has been to perfect human culture so that the lunar colonists can eventually return to Earth armed with new technologies and social norms that will transform civilization and ensure the survival of the species.
The story’s preamble alone could provide enough narrative grist for at least a feature film, but so far we’ve only covered that textual info-dump. The series’ main action picks up with the murder of a young “Mooner” (Nina Barker-Francis), a virtually unheard-of occurrence in the utopian colony — not only is this a place of peace, but technology has advanced sufficiently that the killer can be identified by waving a futuristic scanner at the victim’s body. So far, so tech noir, but there won’t be much time for pondering the case, as moments later we meet the series’ protagonist, Earthling pilot Bella Sway (Emma McDonald). Bella makes frequent cargo runs to the moon, but as we meet her, she has been tasked with transporting the colony’s envoy (Amara Karan) and her bodyguard (Joe Manganiello). On arrival, though, Bella’s true mission is revealed: She’s been hired to smuggle a powerful moon drug back to Earth. To make matters more complex (for both Bella and the viewer), a key revelation connecting her to the moon will compel her to stay, folding the drug smuggling plot into the crazy quilt that is this story. What are the effects of this apparently desirable moon drug? The Moonhaven viewer will quickly learn not to ask questions, as any potential lore rabbit hole is only gestured at before the story power-walks on to the next.
The remainder of this review could easily be devoted to additional nooks and crannies in the series’ premise. Moonhaven is essentially — and, after a fashion, literally — World-Building: The Show. But this would be to commit the creators’ (chief among them former Lodge 49 and Black Sails writer and producer Peter Ocko) own cardinal sin: prioritizing setup over drama. With life on both a futurescape planet and its impossibly habitable satellite to explain, the series’ early episodes are so profoundly devoted to leaden dialogue that there is little chance to build gut-level associations with the characters, their dilemmas, or their relationships. And that’s to say nothing of a truly dizzying density of ulterior motive, double-cross, and subterfuge. By the time the fourth hour ends with the suggestion that this show may have a foot in an entirely different sci-fi subgenre, so many toppings have been added to this big pizza pie that the only appropriate response is overstimulated hysteria. At that point, the frequently excellent performers — including MVPs Dominic Monaghan and Kadeem Hardison as a pair of endearingly gentle cops patrolling a community that’s heretofore had little need for them — have generated enough sparks between them that there can be some investment in, say, the outcome of a visceral brawl. But that investment is sabotaged by the hopelessly muddy stakes of the central conflict.
Moonhaven’s aesthetic vision of the future is at least more coherent than its narrative, though this comes down purely to its reliance on cliche. Earth is a Blade Runner-esque vertical, smog-choked hellscape, while the lunar utopia is a stock hippie colony complete with wood furnishings, primary-colored tunics, and frequent group tai chi sessions. If there’s any insurmountable leap of logic in this show, it’s the viewer’s requisite acceptance that decades of rigorous social trial and error aided by unimaginable technology has yielded a lifestyle roughly equivalent to a SoCal flower-power retreat circa 1969. Meanwhile, the speculative development of communication is limited to a few swapped words (“thoughts” have become “thinks”; “thanks” has become “grats”) and the introduction of some profoundly silly emotional neologisms (“giggleheaded” and “nogginswirl” being a few prime examples) beyond which the characters speak and behave like 21st-century Westerners. For a show as devoted to world-building as Moonhaven, corners are cut whenever convenient, presumably for the sake of getting back to the important work of unspooling a plot so convoluted that “byzantine” doesn’t begin to cover it.
Moonhaven is such a hodgepodge of tone and subgenre that it’s difficult to put it in conversation with a specific set of sci-fi reference points — aside from offering a neo-rustic spin on the Minority Report school of dystopian detective (or ’tective, in Moonhaven-speak) story, there might be echoes of the short-lived Battlestar Galactica prequel series Caprica in its brick-like density of lore. More than a fictional one, the world that Moonhaven is most directly in conversation with is our own, and the side effects of that choice undermine its potential to achieve the pulp entertainment value it seems to aim for.
The first words of the pilot’s opening info-dump are: “The Earth is dying, and its people with it.” The phrasing may be severe, but as anyone with even passing powers of perception is aware, this is not some fantastical premise, and may in fact be a frank description of the situation facing a social structure buckling under the weight of compounding crises, all of them exacerbated by climate catastrophe to which those in power evince crushing indifference. If anything, the presumption that Earth could support human life in 200 years may strike some viewers as optimistic. This is not to suggest that the series arrives at an inopportune time; so many of the great works of science fiction mirror the culture of their creation, using the lens of speculation to offer prescription and/or condemnation. Storytelling has no responsibility to comment on the world as it is — nor, really, any responsibility at all save rewarding the viewer’s attention (whether this critic believes Moonhaven does so should hopefully be clear by now). Where this series stumbles most profoundly, however, is in the utility of the questions it asks, and the conclusions it seems to be offering.
As life on the moon descends into chaos, it’s not hard to wonder what the season’s underlying theme might be. That constructing a functional utopia is likely impossible? That the project of preventing humanity’s extinction will be so complicated as to be potentially hopeless? That our innate nature is to be violent, paranoid, and selfish, and no amount of social or technological advancement can change that fact? Any and all of the above would seem to be suggested by the series’ first season, and these implied takeaways are so self-evident as to inspire numb despair, offering little food for thought in the bargain. Moonhaven may have no essential responsibility, but a story so directly echoing and extrapolating upon reality should ideally possess some urgency outside of the hermetic stakes of a given footchase or fistfight. This is a show likely to inspire very real dread in a segment of its audience, and it would be nice to believe that such an unnerving experience served any purpose aside from offering bargain-basement-blockbuster thrills.
As the potential leads and red herrings pile up, it’s natural to hope for a finale that reconfigures Moonhaven’s first season into a work of narrative harmony. This run of episodes, however, leaves the viewer with a standard see-you-next-season handful of dangling threads, meaning any particular feeling of satisfaction will apparently have to wait. Clearly, the show’s producers have faith in its potential, and in our desire to see that potential fulfilled. Unfortunately, a few standout performances are the only element alluring enough to recommend investing six hours in this story. And with so many of those performers saddled with distracting “futuristic” pancontinental accents, one’s mileage could well vary. The moon may not be made of cheese, but Moonhaven predominantly is, and it seems to have already turned.