Traditionally, before the age of 500 channels, on-demand, Netflix and Hulu, broadcast networks used the summer months to rerun their hit programs’ just-concluded seasons all over again. This made sense because 1) people like to enjoy the long days and beautiful weather during the summer and actually get off their couches for a couple months, and 2) even when people were watching TV, there wasn’t much competition, so why not rerun something they’ve already seen. For the past few years, however, as competition has drastically increased and people are looking to save a little money by staying in a few nights a week, networks have begun to realize the potential of original summer programming. If someone is going to stay home on a Monday night in June, would they rather watch a new episode of whatever buzzed-about original program AMC is airing, or another rerun of Two and a Half Men (which wasn’t all that funny the first time around)? The networks started their summer programming with cheap to produce, “it’s OK if you missed an episode,” reality programming like Big Brother and The Bachelor, but over the past couple seasons, the networks believe there is value in producing original, scripted content. One could argue that Fox began the trend in August 2003 with The OC, but this movement hit its stride with last summer’s CBS offering, Harper’s Island, a serialized murder-mystery attempt to make a TV horror film. While the quality of Harper’smay not have been the highest (although I know the show has its supporters, I am just not one of them), it was a modest hit with a devoted following — certainly nothing to shake a stick at in a major network’s first real foray into original summer programming. So, with that background, a number of shows are being run during the summer, including Flashpoint, Lie to Me, The Good Guys, The Gates, Scoundrels and most important to this review, Persons Unknown.
Persons Unknown is a mystery-thriller set in an “I-think-it’s-supposed-to-look-like-a-movie-set” deserted town. There, seven people who were abducted for an unknown reason, wake up locked in their own, individual hotel room. The town is empty when they first awake, save the numerous casino-style black dome security cameras that are watching their every move. The main characters introduced so far are:
Janet (Daisy Betts): A single mother to her daughter Megan, Janet is with Megan in a San Francisco park when she is approached by Mr. Reddick, a man Janet hired to find her ex-husband who abandoned her and their daughter. Or is Mr. Reddick really working for Janet’s husband? When she believes Megan walked away during her conversation, Janet searches the park for her. Behind a building, she is knocked out and abducted by two disguised men. She wakes up in the hotel, solely concerned with Megan’s whereabouts.
Joe (Jason Wiles): Joe’s background is unclear, but when he immediately takes control of the group, it appears he has a connection to the military or some other group with power. The New Yorker is very resourceful (he tries to set off a smoke detector in hopes of releasing a magnetically-locked door), but all he will say when Janet comments that Joe seems to have an interesting background is, “I’ve seen some funny things in my line of work.”
Charlie (Alan Ruck): Charlie is an insurance salesman who is very concerned with getting back to his wife. She has some mental issues and he is worried what she might do to herself if he isn’t home. Charlie immediately tries to figure out what they all have in common that would lead to their current predicament. He may seem prone to quick bouts of hysteria, but he appears to be someone that shouldn’t be trifled with when, for example, he is threatened with a gun and chokes the co-member of the group to a point of near death. When asking the hotel Night Manager (who doesn’t know why they are there either) for information, he adds that he is “not against breaking your eye sockets if we don’t get answers.”
Sergeant McNair (Chadwick Boseman): McNair is a sergeant in the Marines who appears to have a great respect for whomever he believes to be in charge. This is illustrated by his constant referring to Joe as “Sir,” but lack of deference to Charlie, whom he orders around.
Moira (Tina Holmes): Moira, clad in pajamas and a robe, claims to have been abducted in her sleep at home, but when she reaches into her robe pocket, a hospital bracelet is seen. She claims to work in crisis intervention for a teachers’ union, but she also has a remarkable understanding of biometric implants used to remotely administer drugs, as she finds implanted in the legs of each of the members of the group after Joe, Janet and McNair pass out at the town’s edge.
Tori (Kate Lang Johnson): Tori (or Victoria, as was written in the hotel’s registration book) is seemingly a party girl who can only remember that she was drinking the night before she woke up in the hotel.
Bill Blackham (Sean O’Bryan): Bill, a car salesman, somehow was able to leave the hotel before the rest of the group. They came upon him in the sheriff’s office where he had grabbed a rifle, but was disarmed by McNair, Joe and Charlie.
The pilot spends most of the episode establishing the above, but has a couple surprises thrown in. First, the town is a bit “off.” There is the grand hotel they wake up in, but also a taxidermist. And a Chinese food restaurant. And a dress shop. Further, none of the phones work in the town. Moreover, the town seems to only consist of the main street, and then just ends (with the consequence of falling unconscious if any of the group try to cross the town limits).
Second, the group is actually not alone. After Joe, Janet and McNair pass out trying to leave, they are returned to the hotel that evening by a bunch of Chinese men in a van, who summarily invite the group to eat in the restaurant. When the group (man, I need to think of some interesting name to call these people. “The Awoken?”) reluctantly enters the restaurant, Charlie seizes upon the maitre d and demands to know why they are there, but the man swears he and his co-workers are only there to prepare food. “Not responsible! Only food!” the maitre d exclaims. When the group returns to the hotel after dinner, there is a Night Manager there, who also claims that after interviewing for the job, went to sleep that night, and woke up in an apartment behind the hotel with a note that he got the job.
Third, at the end of dinner, a plate of fortune cookies is brought out. Tori mentions that fortune cookies are supposed to be chosen randomly, so they spin the Lazy Susan on which thecookies sit. Charlie’s fortune says, “Your wife is waiting for you,” which he believes was purposely given to him. Joe warns him, somewhat ominously (and poor-acting-ly), “It’s just a fortune Charlie. Don’t kill yourself over it.” McNair’s is in Chinese, Moira’s is only numbers (how much do you want to bet those numbers open a lock of some sort?). The others are typical fortune cookie fare, except for Janet’s. She doesn’t read hers to the group, but it is revealed to the audience at the end of the episode: “Kill your neighbor and you will be free.” These are the stakes for the series. The mastermind of this plot wants this group of people to kill each other, with the last one standing winning his or her freedom. It’s an old trope, one played in many entertainments from, And Then There Were None, Saw and The Running Man, all the way back to the Roman gladiators, but it is an effective one.
Lastly, there is a plot laying outside of the deserted town. A tabloid reporter named Renbe (Gerald Kyd) gets a hold of the security footage shot in the park where Janet was kidnapped. He begins to investigate her disappearance by interviewing Janet’s estranged mother, Eleanor (Lee Purcell), who is now watching over Megan. Eleanor hasn’t spoken to Janet in a number of years, and, in fact, never met Janet’s husband. She tells Renbe that Janet thought Eleanor was abusive, but it was only once that Eleanor beat Janet so badly with a hair brush that it broke. Only once! She remarks that perhaps she will now have the opportunity to be the mother she never was to Janet. When Renbe leaves, the camera switches to the same style as the security cameras used in the town, taking in a full view of Eleanor in her living room. Someone is watching Janet’s mother, too.
The episode ends with the reveal of Janet’s fortune, and the directive to kill her fellow captives if she wants to leave. The camera pulls back, out the window of the hotel, and out of the town to show that this town is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, with no lights or civilization anywhere to be seen. The pilot leaves the audience with two questions, that fans of Lost should be very familiar with: Why were these specific people chosen? and “Guys, where are we?”
All in all, I thought Persons Unknown had a very positive start. Yes, as I mentioned above, the conceit (kill everyone else and you’ll go free) is an old one, but something about the construction of this series made it feel fresh. I think it may be a conscious nod to those similar entertainments that came before it. For example, the setting of the town looks well-constructed, but has a quality that makes it feel like a movie set. One could argue that maybe the production was just doing what it could with a likely small budget, but I feel like it was a conscious choice. Such a quality contributes to the creepiness because it makes you feel like these people are just in some sick fantasy game being played by some demented overlord. Further, the color palette used is full of washed out, almost over-exposed colors, akin to those used in Saw and other movies of that ilk. Audiences, especially in the High Definition era, are used to vibrant, life-like colors, so to use more muted tones in everything from costumes to set dressing to lighting, it throws everything off-kilter. Lastly, the use of security cameras (or, at least a security camera filter) helps bring home the idea that these people are not free in their movements or decisions. They are being manipulated mentally, psychologically, emotionally, and sometimes physically, at all times. If there is anything that is more unsettling than the idea that one is not in control of one’s self, I don’t know what it is. These elements, playing off one another, really set a great mood for the series, especially for a thriller meant to be the equivalent of a “popcorn flick” for the summer.
Another positive of the series, in most cases, is the acting. Admittedly, these actors didn’t had that much to do during the first episode, as the conceit and “language” (mood, lighting, direction) of the series had to be established. There were, however, the inklings of what could be some great performances. First and foremost is Alan Ruck who plays Charlie. Ruck is most famous for his role as Cameron in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, and similar nebbish, worrisome characters he played in Spin City and Speed. Almost always, Ruck plays the comic relief, and I was worried he would be going down a similar road when his character started worrying about his wife whne first released form his hotel room. But then he started trying to figure out why theywere chosen (thank God! I like smart characters who don’t ignore the conceit of the show they are in), and then he showed an angry, almost violent streak in dealing with Bill, the maitre d and the Night Manager. Ruck is actually a great actor, so to see him sink his teeth into a more dramatic role is something to which I am looking forward. Further, I think Daisy Betts as Janet could have a breakout series. It is clear she and Joe will be the “main” characters in this ensemble, and the first episode leaned on her heavily. I haven’t seen her in anything before, so I’m not sure if she’s been type-cast or anything like that, but I reacted positively from her performance and am eager to see her more. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about Jason Wiles as Joe. Man, was that guy brutal, or what? All of his lines just came off as high school drama club proficient. There was nothing behind them, and I certainly didn’t believe that he was a mysterious guy who had a whole cache of knowledge built up because of the mysterious (and illegal?!?!?!) things he’s done. For a masterful performance of this type of character, check out Joshua Jackson as Peter on Fringe. Wiles should take some notes on Jackson because that is how tough and smart is done.
If there is one big problem I see for the series, it’s the “out-of-town” plot involving the reporter. Shooting over to his meeting with his boss and then his interview with Janet’s mom just broke the tension. Yes, the idea that Eleanor is being watched too was interesting, but I’m much more invested already in how the group trapped in the town are going to survive. I don’t really care about how they are going to be found by the outside world. I’d much rather see a hero emerge from the group that can outwit their captor, instead of a “tabloid reporter makes good” character come in and save the day. And Then There Were None worked just fine without some outside “good guy” trying to capture the “bad guy.” (*AND THEN THERE WERE NONE SPOILER ALERT!!* Yes, I know everyone is dead at the end of the book, but that’s not the point. Keep reading.) The drama about the captives is enough that outside actors are not necessary. I have a fear this storyline won’t go away, so hopefully there will be sufficient twists to make it interesting.
So, overall, I enjoyed Persons Unknownand will definitely be coming back next week. What did you think of the first episode? Are you intrigued by these characters and their situation? Anything glaringly good or bad that you see about the series and its conceit? Any early theories as to who is responsible or why these people have been brought together? Will you be coming back next week? Please leave your questions, comments and theories below. Be sure to check out TVOvermind all summer for Persons Unknownrecaps and the latest TV news. I’ll be back next week with a recap. Until then, I’m off to have the best damn Chinese food I’ve ever eaten.