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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2009-2010 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on either a cut screened to us privately or a copy supplied by a third party NOT a screener provided by the network in question. All were received or screened prior to the networks' official mailings that went out in mid-June.]
PERSONS UNKNOWN (NBC)
(TBA at midseason; TRT: 43:00)
Sci Fi's original description: "From Academy Award-winning writer Christopher McQuarrie ('The Usual Suspects'), who executive produces with Heather McQuarrie, 'Persons Unknown' is a surreal mind-game of a series centering on a group of strangers who awaken in a deserted town with no memory of how they arrived, only to realize that there is no escape. Watched by omnipresent security cameras, their every attempt at leaving the town's borders is thwarted by mysterious forces. The only source of information is fed randomly through remotely controlled televisions, and as mistrust begins to breed, every alliance will be tested, especially when new guests begin to arrive. 'Persons Unknown' is from Fox Television Studios."
What did they leave out? "Persons Unknown" is the third of three Fox TV Studios international co-productions, a new initiative in which U.S. showrunners, writers and talent work with an international production team to create low-cost scripted programming. In the case of "Unknown," a project which was originally developed by Sci Fi, all 13 episodes were shot in Mexico. The previous two - "Defying Gravity" (Vancouver) and "Mental" (Bogota, Colombia) - aired on ABC and FOX, respectively, this summer.
The plot in a nutshell: Janet (Daisy Betts) wakes up to find herself locked in a hotel room unsure of how she got there. Her last memory (as detailed in the teaser): being taken from her five-year-old daughter in broad daylight by two men in blue jumpsuits. She however is far from alone - a domed camera unflinchingly watches her every move. And despite her best efforts - screaming, smashing and everything in between - she can't open the door. That is until a stranger, Joe (Jason Wiles), breaks it down for her. He explains that he too just woke up a few minutes ago in a nearby room with no memory of how he arrived. And there's others too, four to be exact - Charlie (Alan Ruck), a panicky investment banker; Graham (Chadwick Boseman), a level-headed Marine sergeant; Moira (Tina Holmes), a teachers' counselor still in her pajamas; and Victoria (Kate Lang Johnson), a party girl fresh from a long night of binging - all of whom are now trapped on the same floor, which is likewise outfitted with a domed camera. Together - after the prerequisite freaking out phase - they discover they have little in common and even less reason to be kidnapped (aside from Charlie's insistence it's to get to his money). Soon enough they make their way out of the hotel and find that they're in a small, seemingly-abandoned-but-somehow-in-pristine-shape, town in the middle of the wilderness.
Our band of heroes decide to check out the sheriff's office where they find none of the phones work and, more importantly, a man (apologies as I didn't recognize the actor) who's commandeered the only gun in town. He, an oily car salesman named Bill, however isn't the person responsible for their current predicament, having also just woke up in the hotel himself (but opting to ignore Janet's pleas for help). Tired of all the games, Janet and Joe decide to make a run for it, promising to return with help the next day. They however don't get far - as soon as they cross the edge of town, they each mysteriously collapse. Graham tries to help only to receive the same fate, sending the remaining quartet into another state of panic. Come nightfall, a van inexplicably appears filled with Chinese men who return the fallen trio and, no joke, the shotgun. And that's just the first of several bizarre occurrences: the Chinese men retreat to a restaurant where the only English-speaking member (Reggie Lee) offers them food but no answers, while back at the hotel a night manager (Andy Greenfield) arrives likewise without explanation. So who are these people and what exactly are they here for? The only real clues come from the oddest of places... their fortune cookies. Meanwhile back in the real world, a reporter named Mark (Felipe de Lara, I believe) and his editor Kat (Lola Glaudini) look into Janet's disappearance.
What works: Nothing beats watching a big idea unfold onscreen and "Persons Unknown" is definitely a big idea. The show is a balls-to-the-wall mystery from the start and it doesn't ever look back. Sure the concept isn't unprecedented ("The Cube," the "Saw" films) but the idea of exploring it in a weekly television series is something not seen in quite some time (since, as readers have pointed out, "The Prisoner" - which is also the focus of an AMC remake due later this year). And while usually it's a bad sign when you don't know how the show will work from week to week, here it's a breath of fresh air. Literally anything can happen from this point and there's definitely a "can't wait for episode two" feeling after the premiere's final reveal. The overall twists are in general a lot of fun, as concepts like the shotgun, the implants, the Chinese restaurant, etc. all come out of nowhere and nicely shake things up.
It's also a testament to McQuarrie and company that after 42 minutes and change of no clues, just a few words in the final beats can sate the audience's hunger for answers. Nearly all the characters are also wisely given moments of empathy and menace as we're never really sure who's in on the con or if in fact there is one going on. Wiles's Joe perfectly embodies this as his open skepticism about who everyone is coupled with his unwillingness to share anything about himself actually makes him appear all the more trustworthy. All in all, whatever the crazy rationale turns out to be for locking seven people in a ghost town, it should be a fun ride figuring it out.
What doesn't: I'm all for keeping secrets and teasing the audience but several elements are kept inexplicably vague. Graham and Victoria for instance are never named, a fact that becomes all the more frustrating when everybody else casually introduces themselves. (I only managed to get their names by freeze framing the hotel registry.) The captives also frequently fall into the trap of reacting or explaining what's going on in ways that are either too note perfect (Graham remarks the Chinese food they're given is so good he could eat it every day; Moira just happens to know to look for implants) or too resigned to their fates (the gang only half-tries to question the maitre d' and the night manager).
And that's of course setting aside the fact everything is referred to in pronouns without any baseline for who or what "they" or "them" is. It's also a big bet that seven people - armed with a shotgun no less - are simply going to let people like the maitre d' and the night manager keep doing what they're doing without consequence. Thankfully all of the above is offset by some neat elements like Joe's "MacGyver"-esque scheme to get the hotel's fire doors open being quickly deflated by the elevator simply opening; or how nearly everyone freaks out about how to get out of their rooms, when the key is relatively easy to find. At the end of the day, the pilot to "Persons Unknown" should get you hooked...
The bottom line: ...so let's hope the payoff is just as fun.