Six strangers awake in an empty hotel in a seemingly-abandoned small American town: how did they get there and who brought them…?
The creator-writer of this ‘mega-mini-series’ or ‘limited series’ (meaning NBC have promised to wrap up the show and solve the mysteries within 13 episodes) is Christopher McQuarrie, the writer of The Usual Suspects who was associated with the recent re-imagining of iconic show The Prisoner. His experience of recreating that 1960s classic is clear in the mysterious premise of Persons Unknown, which also has elements of the just-concluded Lost, the Cube movie series and even the Saw series (without the deadly traps and gore). There’s a limited environment (the movie set-like town), trapped strangers and all-pervasive surveillance.
When people are sent into an obviously irregular situation where they are being watched by security cameras and unable to leave a certain area, the biggest question is–why? The pilot roughly skims around this questions in the opening sequence in a awkward manner, but never revisits it. The rest of the episode is spent finding a Chinese restaurant, the night manager, and the reading of fortune cookies which say “Kill your neighbor and you’ll go free.” Is this all it is, a sick, sadistic game for those watching?
A premise like the one put forth in Persons Unknown can live or die on the small cast of characters that inhabit its story. Unfortunately, this is easily the weakest aspect of the show. It was a struggle to find many of these characters interesting or believable as they interacted with each other and the strange predicament they found themselves in.
The “Pilot” is initially told through the eyes of Janet Cooper (Daisy Betts) as we see her kidnapped and her daughter left behind on the playground. We should naturally be feeling sympathy for a mother separated from her child but an emotional connection never quite clicks here.
Joe Tucker (Jason Wiles) is the stereotypical “man of mystery” that always seems to pop up in these ensembles. He doesn’t like to talk about his past (Oh, mysterious!) but seems to know a little more about everything than he’s letting on. Sign me up for the show where they dump characters like Joe Tucker on a mysterious island. It would be fun to see how they react to each other’s inane dialogue that not so subtly references their mysterious pasts without revealing anything at all.
The rest of the cast fills out their cookie-cutter caricatures admirably. Tori Fairchild (Kate Lang Johnson) is the ditsy blonde who spends most of the episode confused, offering nothing more to the story than a pair of great legs while Bill Blackham (Sean O’Bryan) is the nervous and hotheaded wildcard who will eventually create more problems than solutions with his abrasive attitude.
Charlie Morse (Alan Ruck) and Graham McNair (Chadwick Boseman) appear to be the only two levelheaded ones amongst the group. If I’m ever stuck in a situation like this, I’m going to listen to the trained Marine Sergeant before following the international man of mystery out into the woods.
Moira Doherty (Tina Holmes) is a mental patient who also seems to know a lot about bio-mechanical drug injecting doohickeys that are surgically implanted in your body. She’s the character I’m having the most trouble categorizing which also makes her the most intriguing. Also, am I the only one dying to know the message she received from her fortune cookie? What numbers!?
The town itself proves to be the most exciting character of the episode. It starts off as a barren wasteland that seems to have been ripped out of a bygone era. Pristine silver rotary pay phones hint at when this town may have been constructed. As the episode progresses, we discover that those who have been kidnapped are not alone. The local restaurant is fully staffed while the conclusion introduces us to a maitre d’ who seems to have found himself in a similar situation before. Their willingness to play a part in this charade is curious and definitely one of the more interesting aspects of this mystery.
Of course, Persons Unknown inevitably becomes a “guess the twist” show: they’re all dead (nope, been done recently); it’s a reality TV show (The Truman Show got there first); it’s a bizarre experiment (The Twilight Zone’s 50-year-old pilot episode ‘Where is Everybody?’ springs to mind; they’re being ‘stress tested’, perhaps?). Maybe the fact that ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ is playing in the hotel lobby is a clue? Maybe not.
This opening episode is all set up, and that’s necessary for these types of shows. It’s a simpler proposition than the recent flop Happy Town, which was too complicated and too self-consciously trying to be Twin Peaks. There are enough elements here to bring the viewer back for episode two and maybe beyond: what is the town, what are the implants in their legs, what’s going to happen following the fortune cookie instructions?
Hopefully the writing improves and the characters break free from their archetypes to become a little more engaging and human. Finally, the best thing about Persons Unknown? It is guaranteed to be concluded (whether satisfactorily or not is yet to be seen) in just 13 episodes. There’s no six-year Lost-style investment required here: just 13 summer evenings. That’s refreshing.