Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Getting to Know "Persons Unknown"

The first installment of NBC's new summer drama "Persons Unknown" aired Monday night. It has a puzzle-box premise, with seven people trapped in a sinister little town that they're unable to leave. No one knows why they've been brought there or who the abductors are. The prisoners appear to have no connection to each other. It's an elaborate set-up that could only happen on television, where an unseen mastermind is pulling the strings to an implausible degree to manipulate the rats in his maze. I generally like these shows, though I'll be the first to admit that they're a guilty pleasure because they almost never hold up under much scrutiny. The pilot was pretty generic, but I'm sufficiently intrigued to give it a few more episodes.

Our heroine is a young mother named Janet Cooper (Daisy Betts), whose husband has recently disappeared for reasons unknown. There's just enough time during the pre-title sequence to establish this before she's subdued and carried off by anonymous assailants. Janet wakes up locked in a hotel room. The key to the door is within easy reach, though hidden (symbolism, oooh). She meets fellow abductees from adjacent rooms, and they engage in the usual rounds of introductions and paranoia and hostility before venturing out of the hotel to discover the eerily empty town they've been brought to inhabit. After attempts to leave are thwarted, a few workers begin to appear, first at a nearby restaurant and then at the hotel. They're not very helpful, but serve a Chinese dinner that ends with cryptic fortune cookies. Janet's says, "kill your neighbor and you'll go free." Cut to black.

So far, so good. The first episode got the plot rolling, but the primary goal was introducing our cast of characters. Among Janet's fellow abductees, I recognized Sean O'Bryan as the hot-tempered Bill, and Alan Ruck playing a graying businessman named Charlie and making my fellow Gen X-ers feel older by the minute. I wasn't familiar with the rest, and had to go to Wikipedia for character names and descriptions to start sorting them out: Joe (Jason Wiles) is the alpha-male leading man, Sergeant McNair (Chadwick Boseman) is still in army fatigues and carries a big gun, Tori (Kate Lang Johnson) seems to be a shallow blond party girl for the moment, and Moira (Tina Holmes) is a middle-aged woman who blends into the background until well into the second half of the hour. Apparently there's also an eighth inmate in the asylum who we haven't met yet.

The characters' behavior and the group interactions grated a bit, because they were very formulaic. Upon waking up and discovering she can't get out of the hotel room, Janet indulges in shrieking hysterics for the benefit of the security camera she spots in the ceiling. She wants her daughter back, and by gum, she's going to remind us of it every chance she gets. The other two female members of the group get the least amount of dialogue and characterization. Tori only says enough to signal that she's the show's requisite fanservice object. Moira hardly registers, until she susses out that the abductees have all been implanted with devices that render them unconscious when they try to leave the town. Bill is the antagonistic one who's quick to resort to violence and ultimatums. Charlie rambles about the possible motives of their captor(s).

The sergeant, who would be a more natural choice for a leader, almost immediately defers to the charismatic alpha male, Joe, despite the fact that the Joe is the least forthcoming about his past and identity. I don't want to read too much into this (yet), but the sergeant as an African-American is the only minority character in the show aside from some painfully stereotypical Chinese workers who show up to cook the group dinner - apparently they function as worker drones for the near-empty town. (For the benefit of those who do not speak Mandarin, the untranslated line of dialogue one of them speaks is, "We return the gun to you.") Of the captors we learn little, except that they're constantly watching through the omnipresent surveillance cameras, and their employees - including the hotel's genial night manager (Andy Greenfield) - are not in the habit of asking questions of "them."

And lest we forget the outside world, there are also a few scenes with a reporter named Mark (Gerald Kyd) and his boss Kat (Laura Glaudini), who are investigating Janet's disappearance from San Francisco. Mark question's Janet's mother, who might as well be wearing a giant "Evil" sign around her neck, and we learn the little granddaughter is safe and sound for the moment. In other words, the reporters are going to be filling in exposition for us that the main characters have no way of discovering, and providing the audience with extra clues to the show's mysteries. Alas, they're not showing much by way of personalities, but it's early yet. NBC has picked up the show for thirteen-episodes and the ads promise we'll have some sort of closure by summer's end. Whether it will be necessary to watch episodes two through twelve is currently the show's biggest mystery.

I can't say with any certainty after only one episode where "Persons Unknown" is going to go. I'm hoping for something like "Ten Little Indians" with a little of "The Prisoner" in the mix. The biggest name involved here is creator Christopher McQuarrie, most recently of "Valkyrie," but best known for "The Usual Suspects," so hopefully there's a chance of something a little darker and more daring in the endgame. But honestly, I'm not expecting much. What "Persons Unknown" reminds of so far is those old Stephen King miniseries where a motley collection of "ordinary people" - always the same few character types - are thrown together to fight creepy external forces, oust the traitors in their midst, reveal terrible personal secrets, and engage in unconvincing romances. Sometimes you get a few good twists, and there's always a ton of cornball over-acting, but it's harmless fun.

That's pretty much all you can ask for from summer TV.

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