Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

NBC’s Debris needs to embrace its otherworldly concept

Riann Steele and Jonathan Tucker in NBC’s Debris
Riann Steele and Jonathan Tucker in NBC’s Debris
Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC
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The primary idea behind Debris, a new sci-fi series from Fringe alum J.H. Wyman, is quite wild. Two agents from different countries are supposed to track and bring in pieces of debris—here, small objects made from alien tech—that cause strange occurrences for anyone who comes in contact with it. It’s just bizarre enough to prompt a certain level of curiosity. In the last few years, network television has often attempted to make the next big X-Files or Losta compelling, high-concept drama that builds on its suspense—with mostly unremarkable results. These endeavors include CBS’s weak adaptation of Stephen King’s Under The Dome; NBC’s post-apocalyptic Revolution, where the world has lost electricity in the future; Fox’s Alcatraz, where vanished prisoners and guards reappear in modern day; and a roster of ABC’s unsuccessful, one-season sci-fi shows like The Whispers, Time After Time, Emergence, The Crossing. After achieving moderate success with Manifest (a missing plane shows up five years later and the passengers haven’t aged a day), NBC is risking it all with Debris, which doesn’t lean enough into its concept enough

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With the rise of streaming platforms and binge models, it’s become even more difficult for a weekly series in this genre to gain momentum. The pilot for Debris fails to strike a balance between character and plot development. The episode introduces MI6's Finola Jones (Riann Steele) and CIA Agent Bryan Beneventi (Jonathan Tucker), who form an unlikely alliance while leading a team to intercept the debris. As the pilot opens, the duo tries to capture three men conducting an illegal transaction of one of these debris pieces that a hotel maid accidentally touches. She is then transported several floors below, Nightcrawler-style, to her death. As they study this particular Dorito-shaped debris (seriously, get used to this word!), they realize the properties are similar to that of another one found in Manchester, revealing why two different agencies are working together with plenty of exposition about how they should look out for their own country’s interests.

With Wyman as the series creator, Finola and Bryan’s partnership is clearly meant to have a vibe akin to the Olivia Dunham and Peter Bishop dynamic or even Dana Scully and Fox Mulder. They both come from different backgrounds and beliefs. Yet, Debris fails to establish them as dynamic duo worth rooting for in the way the pilot of X-Files did for Scully and Mulder. In a crucial scene, they’re discussing the arrival of these pieces, how the Hubble telescope spotted a wrecked spacecraft causing a debris cloud, and why they’re working this beat. Finola reveals that her (apparently) dead father, George Jones, was the first astrophysicist who was told about the debris and “it finally made him believe again.” She thinks that its magical properties will help humanity, as long it’s in the right hands. Meanwhile, Bryan has returned from Afghanistan with no idea what to do, so he’d rather ensure this alien tech doesn’t fall in the wrong hands. These scenes are supposed to provide crucial backstory about the debris and the two protagonists, but they simply fall flat because of the lack of chemistry between Steele and Tucker, who aren’t able to imbue the dialogue with enough emotion.

Debris is going the procedural route, with each outing following a “case of the week.” In this one, Finola and Bryan go to Kansas where a woman’s body is found floating just above the ground. They find similar victims in an empty field nearby. Upon investigation, it looks like these bodies are technically alive but drained of any muscular action potential, so they’re simply degrading away. They trace these bodies back to a young boy, Kieran Vandeberg, who died in a car accident a few months ago but seems to appear on CCTV footage with the victim. The team discovers Kieran’s mother’s body also defying gravity and floating in the backyard of his house, and a massive piece of debris stands just a little further. As Finola approaches it, she gets visions of her mother who died of cancer. So, yes, this particular debris’ power lies in pulling from the memories and feelings of whoever is around it. It’s how the debris manifested a version of Kieran, by pulling from his mother’s grief because she was the one driving the car when Kieran was killed. This case focuses a little too much on the emotional aspect, but even though it lets viewers into Finola’s grieving mind space and hints at Bryan’s personal losses, the performances can’t sell the turmoil.

As much as they’re trying, the actors don’t yet have the prowess to carry the emotive weight of the show. To find its space in this television landscape, Debris should rely on the power of the titular space junk. The premiere hardly delves into the mystery of it all because by the time it starts, this debris has been around for a while and already passed the “shock and awe” stage for the characters, and therefore, the audience. Where exactly did this alien tech come from and why in those specific places? Would the CIA or MI6 really be investigating it—even though this faction is apparently called Orbital—instead of a more covert organization? Will Debris ever introduce these extraterrestrial beings who have potentially sent their tech to Earth? It might seem outlandish but then again, Lost went all out in its pilot with a polar bear on an island, a scary message in French, and loud roaring noises. X-Files did the same with showing alien abductions right away, embracing all the plot points that made it weird but also one-of-a-kind. For now, Debris seems like a rough cut of its predecessors with a pilot that doesn’t offer anything new. At least it raises enough questions to keep the season going. Perhaps the cliffhanger ending, which shows George Jones is alive and that the CIA is conducting a secret (what’s new?) investigation of its own into the debris, will pivot the way for something cooler and more narratively gripping.

Stray observations

  • It’s not a good sign for the pilot if the most memorable performance comes from guest star Alisha Newton, who plays Kieran’s older sister Isla Vanderberg, correct?
  • How much do the regular citizens of the world know about these debris pieces, because it doesn’t look like the Orbital team cares much about covering it up? After the hotel maid falls 14 floors down without a crack in the ceiling and dies, someone from the team says that the many witnesses “are nothing we can’t handle.” Too easy.
  • Finola’s father is alive...and her partner knows about it but she doesn’t. It’s clear that George faked his death because he knows more about the debris than others, it’s why he sent those two men in the opening scene to buy the pieces.
  • Debris seems to be leaning a lot into the whole good guys vs. bad guys concept (Lost trope alert!) by establishing Finola and Bryan’s morals and balancing that against the maybe nefarious reappearance of George, the CIA’s classified mission, and MI6's agenda.
  • The show needs more exciting action. They have a destroyed spacecraft, otherworldly advanced tech, possibly aliens. Let’s hope the rest of the season expands on that mythology as opposed to just a standard procedural format.
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Staff Writer (TV)