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Persons Unknown - "Pilot"

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Persons Unknown debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m.

You've gotta know the story by now, right? There's a group of people, from all different walks of life. Someone or something calls them together to a mysterious locale that is enough like the world we're all familiar with from our day to day lives to be reassuring but just a few degrees enough off of that to be absolutely terrifying. While there, they puzzle out the rather existential matter of why they're there, while trying to figure out more practical things as well, like how to escape their new, weird prison and just why, exactly, they're of such interest to the overlords behind the project. Eventually, they solve enough of the riddles to figure out why they're there and to figure out a way to thwart the forces keeping them there, and then they escape. Or they don't, and the final shot is of one of them revealing the man in charge the whole time has been himself. Y'know, whatever.

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Persons Unknown is almost the perfect summer version of this show. It's just demanding enough to make you think it might be worth following, but it's not so demanding that you'll spend every hour of every day thinking about it and theorizing about it. If anything, it gives the lie to those people who were always complaining about how the gang on Lost Island should have been asking far more questions, because, man, the people on this show keep asking questions of anyone who will listen, and it eventually just gets incredibly annoying. There's a scene near the end where they have occasion to spill out all of their questions, and they mostly boil down to, "Where are we?" and "How do we get home?" Granted, this is exactly what I'd be asking in this situation, but in a scenario where you're relatively certain no one will be answering the questions, it's not very dramatically interesting.

The brains behind Persons Unknown are Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for scripting The Usual Suspects, and Michael Rymer, who was the primary director behind the Battlestar Galactica remake and the one responsible for that show's visual style from the miniseries onward. To that end, Persons Unknown feels almost exactly like what you'd think a collaboration between the two would feel like. There are long shots of static machinery and pseudo-documentary shots from the point of view of the surveillance cameras keeping an eye on everyone in the little town where the series is set. There are questions piled on top of more questions and quickly sketched in character conflicts and at least one awkward framing device involving a reporter. And in a move sure to please the many who worry that these kinds of shows get more and more strained the longer they go on, McQuarrie has apparently structured the series much like a miniseries. We'll have a full explanation for what's been going on by the end of the season, and if it's a big hit, NBC will just have to figure out where to go from there next summer.

But I'd be hard-pressed to see this becoming a big hit. I'm going to watch every episode of it, but that's just because that's the kind of person I am. I love these sorts of shows, and even if I can see where lots of this is going from the first couple of moments, I can find plenty to enjoy. (Astute observers of this subgenre will likely be able to predict what the final twist of the episode is within the first few moments of the initial setup. That doesn't make the skill with which McQuarrie and Rymer deploy the twist have any less impact.) But the show is so devoted toward pressing the plot forward in all instances that the characters remain frustrating types, and that makes it the kind of show that's likely to inspire mild curiosity, rather than ardor.

The setup, honestly, is a promising one and half the reason I'm recommending it. A handful of people wake up in a weird old hotel (I love weird old hotels!). Gradually, they come together and figure out a way off the floor they're trapped on. When they make it to the lobby, they begin to realize that they're the only people in the hotel and in the tiny town that the hotel is situated in. As they begin to explore the backlot, er, town, other stuff starts to happen, some of it easily explainable, some of it not so easily explainable. They all come in easily explainable types, from the single mother who cares too much to the soldier (who's probably seen a lot of stuff he'd rather forget) to the high-strung dude who's played by Alan Ruck (as high-strung dudes must always be). McQuarrie finds some inventive ways to expand this cast, and he does so in a way that will keep viewers wondering just what the hell is going on here. As a setup for a mystery puzzle box show, it's dynamite.

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There's one thing that doesn't really work here. The series keeps cutting away to a reporter and his fellow newspaper staff trying to figure out just what happened to our single mother, and it's usually an exercise in tedium to go and watch these scenes, sort of like watching those scenes where Will was on the trail of SD-6 in season one of Alias. This is just not as interesting as what's happening in the little town. Indeed, it's pretty much doomed to be less interesting. McQuarrie doesn't spend a lot of time on this storyline, but that it's involved at all means that it will eventually have some bearing on what's going to happen, and it's inevitably going to be something of a disappointment.

But the larger problem is that the show seems to want to coast a little bit too much on the fact that its premise is so much fun. Now, McQuarrie and Rymer figure out ways to deploy the usual twists with some degree of aplomb, but they're still the usual sorts of twists. Persons Unknown is a show that seems to want to exist in a universe where there weren't millions of other shows like this out there over the past decade, and it's a show that wants us to be completely interested in it merely because it's presenting mysteries. Obviously, there are people out there who will invest on that level. I'm one of them. But stories like this work only if we get a sense that the characters are going to become more interesting over time, and there's no indication whatsoever in Persons Unknown that that's going to be the case.

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On the other hand, it's the summer. What else are you gonna watch? Persons Unknown isn't perfect, by any means, but it's nice to see something that takes the old "mysterious place filled with mysterious people" concept and strips it down to its bare bones to see what it can find ticking beneath the framework of other, better shows. Particularly if you like the idea that you're going to get all of your answers by the end of the summer, Persons Unknown just might be for you. Honestly, though, I suspect you already know this because you heard "A bunch of people wake up in a hotel and have to figure out how they got there" and thought, "Cool," instead of, "Seen it!"

Stray observations:

  • Hey, I've already said I'm in for the summer. If this gets enough response from you guys, we might consider adding it.
  • Apparently, this was a co-production between Fox (the TV production company, not the network) and a Mexican broadcasting company, which would suggest why the sets look simultaneously so chintzy and so different from anything on American TV.
  • Come back after watching it and we'll talk in comments. I want to discuss, in particular, how the show deploys some of its plot twists.
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