Fridays at 9 p.m. on Syfy. Five episodes into the first season.

Only novels rival TV shows in terms of the depth and breadth of the worlds they can create. That’s what makes the classic luddite sneer “I don’t even own a TV” so profoundly stupid: It betrays the fact that the sneering luddites are just as blind to the medium’s potential as the TV hacks at which they direct their derision. Because sure, most TV is disposable (just as most books and music and movies are ultimately disposable), but the shows that understand the possibilities in literally hours of story time can become epics, not necessarily in style (I’m thinking of shows like Arrested Development in addition to such obvious examples as The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) but in scope.

Time will tell whether Caprica can ascend to that echelon—it’s still early, and it’s walking a staggeringly high tightrope—but it has the potential because it has the ambition, with an enormous cast of complex characters, intricate plotting, and truly intriguing ideas about technology and religion and terrorism and the nature of humanity and a host of other weighty themes. The tone is a bit uneven, wobbling from humor to melodrama to genuine tragedy, and then there’s the fact that as a prequel to the revamped Battlestar Galactica (which ended its four-season run last spring), it is, by definition, heading toward apocalypse: the vast majority of the characters (not to mention their entire civilization) are doomed, which is, you know, kind of depressing. And yet Caprica is too interesting and immersive to be a downer. I haven’t gotten over my fears that it’s going to collapse into an incoherent mess (always a danger when you aim high), and I don’t have much idea where it’s going with the many narrative threads, but my bewilderment isn’t a strike against it. That, in fact, is what make it so fascinating.

The framework of Caprica is endearing: despite its sleek, sci-fi trappings, it has a lot in common with old-fashioned family dramas like Dallas, following two families whose lives intersect after a horrible tragedy. Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz), a self-made Bill Gates figure in the city of Caprica, owns a high-tech company with military contracts, and Joseph Adama (Esai Morales), an immigrant Tauron, reluctantly provides legal representation (and dirtier machinations) to a Mafia-like Tauron criminal organization. The two men meet after each loses a daughter—and Joseph his wife, as well—in a terrorist attack perpetrated by members of a monotheistic cult protesting what they perceive as the decadent immorality of the polytheistic Caprican culture. For Daniel, the situation is particularly complicated. Soon after his daughter’s death, he learns that the rebellious Zoe (Alessandra Torresani), who inherited his own technological genius, had created an avatar of herself—true artificial sentience—and also that she had been a member of the deadly monotheistic cult. Wracked by grief and guilt, and desperate to restore his daughter to life, Daniel convinces Joseph to use his Tauron connections to steal a piece of technology that might allow him to give his daughter a physical body—in part by bribing Joseph with the promise to use Zoe’s program to create an avatar of Joseph’s own daughter, Tamara (Genevieve Buechner). But Daniel’s efforts go awry, Zoe’s program is destroyed, and neither father realizes the full results of the Frankenstein-like actions: Zoe’s self is trapped in a bulky metal robot and Tamara’s self is lost in the artificial Internet world. Meanwhile, Joseph’s theft—at Daniel’s behest—has its own deadly consequences; Daniel’s wife, Amanda (Paula Malcomson), publicly admits that she believes her daughter was a terrorist, with inevitable repercussions; Joseph’s unhappy son, Willie (Sina Najafi), gravitates toward his assassin uncle Sam (Sasha Roiz); the untethered avatar Tamara explores the nature of her own continued existence; and Zoe’s best friend, Lacy (Magda Apanowicz), deals with survivor’s guilt, her own cult ties, and her efforts to carry out Zoe’s wishes without anyone—particularly their shady teacher Clarice Willow (Polly Walker)—learning that Zoe has achieved a twisted sort of immortality that might be manipulated by those adults whom both girls now distrust.

OK, so that’s a lot, clearly, and it sounds sort of insane when you summarize it so baldly, but in context, there’s a lot that works here. Daniel and Joseph’s efforts to reclaim their daughters from death recalls the age-old story of Orpheus and Eurydice, with a perverse yet poignant parental spin. Zoe’s struggle to deal with her unnatural trinitarian self—human, artificial sentience, robot—is mind-bending and slyly funny. Tamara’s awakening in her new Matrix-esque world is vividly imagined, as is the media-saturated physical world of Caprica proper. The conflict between the monotheists and polytheists tackles the question of the root of morality at provocative angles, and Caprica follows in Battlestar’s footsteps by confronting the issue of terrorism in challenging, unsettling ways.

Part of the reason that Caprica works is that the show runners aren’t overly concerned about making their characters likable. One can’t help feel sorry for a parent who has lost a child, but Stoltz makes it difficult to actually like Daniel Graystone, which is as it should be. The monomaniacal Daniel is too nuanced to be a cliched mad scientist, but his ruthlessness and unmoored morals are disturbing—and will only become more so, I suspect. Zoe, too, is no martyr; she is both sophisticated and naïve, a victim and a bully. In fact, come to think of it, I actually like only a few of the characters in Caprica, but nearly all of them intrigue and surprise me. Which is good. Fuzzy, huggable characters have their place, but on a show like this, you need more grit, and Caprica delivers that with darkly colorful splashes.

All the detail is remarkable. I love the intricate and meaningful Tauron tattoos, and Bear McCreary’s gorgeous score, and the hyper-stylized virtual world Tamara inhabits, and the glimpses of Caprican TV, and Daniel’s little robot butler scooting around like an evolved Roomba. I love the hints at plot turns yet to be uncovered: the schism in the monotheist crowd, the Graystones’ shadowy past, the bloody bungled theft. Yes, there’s a lot going on, and not all of it good. (I simply can’t wrap my head around the awkward, charged relationship between robot Zoe and her handler. It’s just … weird.) But so far, at least, the show’s promise is intoxicating. All those details, all those nuanced characters, all those twisting threads, are weaving a mesmerizing world.

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