TV review: Persons Unknown

I have to admit a certain fondness for the burnoff shows the networks pass off as “exciting new programming!” during the summer – instead of making a multi-year commitment to a program I know eventually will lead to my disappointment (I’m looking at you, “Lost”), there’s a closed-loop, 13-episode series in which I don’t have to become emotionally invested.

Much like CBS’ late, unlamented “Harper’s Island” (I show I enjoyed immensely), NBC’s “Persons Unknown” is a summer-only experiment at creating a serialized thriller without a dense mythology. Much like “Harper’s,” I imagine that the initial interest will fade away, leaving only a few stalwarts left to figure out what’s going on.

The premise of the show is like catnip for those hooked on mysteries that could go in any number of directions – a group of disparate strangers wake up in a hotel with no idea where they are or how they got there. Seemingly trapped in their rooms, a very narrow, deserted world begins to open up, only one with omnipresent cameras everywhere.

Who is behind this? Why are they watching? How are these people connected? What’s the deal with the Chinese food?

These are the kinds of slightly creepy, vague questions “Persons” raises during its first hour, and while everything doesn’t always work, it was enough to get me back for episode 2. It helped that the premiere episode was scripted by “The Usual Suspects” scribe Christopher McQuarrie, who knows a little something about creating a mystery.

The ostensible heroes, on the surface, appear to be the mysterious Joe (Jason Wiles), a man-of-action type reluctant to reveal too much about himself; and Janet (Daisy Betts), a mom who wants to do anything to get back to her daughter, who was with her when she went missing.

The rest of the cast is filled with the archetypes familiar to those who have read an Agatha Christie novel or two – The Military Man, The Mental Case, The Party Girl, The Rich Guy, The Blustery Businessman – and who know that these people will both be used as red herrings and victims throughout the show.

The unknown character remains who (or what?) is behind the camera globes mounted throughout the town. In an unfortunate bit of chicanery, each time the view switches to the camera, there’s a jarring “Bloop” sound that brings to mind, whether intentionally or not, some sort of alien presence.

For some other reason, and this is my biggest criticism of the show, there are two newspaper types out in the “real” world who are investigating these sudden disappearances. These people are totally extraneous (and bad actors to boot), and take the viewer out of the uneasy, weird world that our main characters inhabit.

There’s the right amount of no-name actors and semi-familiar faces (hey, Cameron Frye!) that makes predicting who is bad/who will die a little harder to figure, and the acting is competent, if not a little restrained. (I’m always amazed that in these types of shows/movies, no one tries really hard to escape – no chairs through windows? No stealing the van?)

This is an internationally financed show, pre-sold in other territories, that NBC picked up. So, the Peacock doesn’t have that much invested in it, which means they could either: A. be fine with letting the 13 episodes unfold regardless of ratings or B. panic like CBS did with “Harper’s Island” and bury the show in the hinterlands of Saturday in favor of “Office” reruns.

I’d like to think that NBC doesn’t have anything better to offer and will let this play out. And right now, where we’re in as much dark as the characters, is when this kind of show works the best. I hope the eventual resolution maintains some of the panache and eerieness of the debut.

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~ by Elliott on June 8, 2010.

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