NBC premiered its new summer miniseries ‘Persons Unknown’ this Monday. The mystery thriller was created by Christopher McQuarrie (screenwriter of ‘The Usual Suspects‘), and is scheduled to run for only 13 episodes. The network ads promise definitive answers by the final episode. That sure sounds like a ploy to appeal to disgruntled ‘Lost’ fans, doesn’t it? While the first episode (called, simply enough, ‘Pilot’) is certainly not anywhere in the same league as ‘Lost’ (how many series are?), the show has me at least reasonably intrigued.
The pilot has a very strong and obvious ‘Lost’ vibe. A group of strangers are thrown together into a mysterious location. They aren’t sure how they got there, and can’t find any immediate chance of rescue or escape. The characters seem to fall into clearly-defined types. (In this case: the single mom, the solider, the businessman, the bimbo party girl, the hothead jerk, etc.) One strong-willed and resourceful individual quickly emerges as a leader who convinces them that they need to work together to survive. Strange, vaguely science fictional circumstances surround their every move.
The other obvious influence here is the seminal British series ‘The Prisoner‘. A prominent gazebo set is no doubt a deliberate nod to that classic show.
The set-up: Seven people are kidnapped from their regular lives. They all wake up in the same hotel in a seemingly deserted town in the middle of nowhere. Mounted security cameras monitor everything they do. They manage to get out of the hotel, the exit from which is a deliberate puzzle. The buildings in town appear to be trapped in the 1950s (there are old typewriters in the sheriff’s station), and have generic names like “Downtown Hotel.” The town is surrounded by mountains, and the characters soon discover that they can’t leave. If any of them gets too close to the outskirts, he or she will immediately pass out.
Clues are dropped that some of the main characters may not really be who they claim to be. Naturally, everyone is suspicious of one another. The social worker Moira acts more like a mental patient. The main man of action (Jason Wiles) refuses to divulge anything about his identity or background other than the vague name “Joe from New York.” He appears to have military training of some sort. No one can find any logical connection that might explain why they were chosen for this… Hostage situation? Terrorist exercise? Experiment? Investment banker Charlie (Alan Ruck) of course thinks they were kidnapped for money. But few of the others are worth much in assets. Single mom Janet (Daisy Betts) immediately suspects her jerkoff ex-husband, but he’d have no way of knowing any of the others or motives to harm them.
Eventually, they encounter other people in town. Unfortunately, none of them offer many answers. There’s a fully-staffed Chinese restaurant. Only one person there speaks English, and he doesn’t have much to share. (The host is played by Reggie Lee, a character actor from shows like ‘Prison Break’. He doesn’t normally speak with a heavy accent, so I suspect that there will be a plot twist involving his character later on.) A night manager appears at the hotel. He claims that he had just been hired the previous day, and isn’t sure how he got there either. When asked if he thinks that’s weird, all he has to say is, “I’m used to it by now.”
The episode occasionally cuts to action outside the town, for a story involving a San Francisco reporter covering the story of Janet’s disappearance. He doesn’t know it yet, but we in the audience learn that those cameras are monitoring events in the regular world too.
By episode’s end, we’re given a clear, rational explanation for why the characters pass out at the edge of town. They each have small implants, presumably for drug release, beneath the skin of one leg. Except possibly for Moira, who figures out this development but doesn’t actually show her own leg.
In the final twist, all of the characters are given random fortune cookies at the Chinese restaurant. Some have generic fortunes, others have personal information. Both Moira and Janet lie about theirs. We never find out what Moira’s says, but Janet’s contains the instruction, “Kill your neighbor and you’ll go free.”
The show is very cinematically filmed. Although some of the stylistic tropes are a little clichéd, the episode builds sufficient mystery and suspense. The writing is solid, and none of the characters are too annoying or stupid yet. ‘Persons Unknown’ doesn’t have the immediate emotional involvement of ‘Lost’ or the surreal satire of ‘The Prisoner’. It may not be a revolutionary television breakthrough. Nevertheless, at least so far, it’s fairly interesting. For summer programming, it seems to have more potential than most of the dreck out there. I’ll continue to watch.