TELEVISION: Persons Unknown – NBC Kicks off Scripted Summer Series with Exposition-Heavy Pilot!

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Persons Unknown [NBC, Mondays, 10/9C] is NBC’s first scripted series of the summer and is best described as a high concept/indifferent execution drama. The idea is that seven people from different areas and classes wake up to find themselves locked in hotel rooms in what appears to be the center of a small town [not unlike an American version of The Village, from The Prisoner] – only the rest of the town is missing and the streets end in paths leading into wilderness. And they’re being watched.

There’s Joe [Jason Wiles, Beverly Hills 90210], a take charge kinda guy who doesn’t want to talk about his past; Charlie Morse [Alan Ruck, Spin City], CEO of a successful investment firm; Janet Cooper [Daisy Betts, Australia’s Out of the Blue], a single mom and owner of a daycare centre based in her home; Sgt. Graham McNair [Chadwick Boseman, Lincoln Heights], a Marine – and the most even-tempered, clear-thinking individual in the group; Moira Doherty [Tina Holmes, Six Feet Under], who claims to be a drug counsellor; Tori Fairchild [Kate Lang Johnson], the spoiled, rich girl of the group, and Bill Blackham [Sean O’Bryan], a car salesman and hot-tempered idiot.

Back in the real world, there’s an investigative reporter for a “muckraking tabloid”, Mark Renbe [Gerald Kyd, British drama, Casualty], who stumbled onto footage of Janet’s kidnapping and believes there’s a big story behind it; and Mark’s editor, Kat Damatto [Lola Glaudini, Criminal Minds], who’s willing to let Mark root out the story as long as he can keep the paper in other headlines in the meantime.

Although each of the isolated characters get about the same amount of screen time, Janet is the only one we actually see kidnapped [while watching her daughter play at a park] so it’s probably safe to assume that she’s the one we’re most meant to identify with. At the same time, though, it doesn’t take much thought to figure out that each character has a secret.

While the isolated location might remind of The Prisoner, there’s another minor similarity. Like The Village, there’s a sentry to prevent escape attempts – though here it’s an implant that releases tranquilizers, rather than a gloopy, oversized beach ball named Spot.

More puzzling is the actual town center, which features a number of stores [clothing, hardware, etc], a sheriff’s office and a Chinese restaurant – the latter actually figuring into the story [especially the last scene…]. And then there’s the hotel’s new night manager…

Written by series creator by Christopher McQuarrie [The Usual Suspects], the premiere is very much an explorative episode: introducing a horde of characters; setting up the premise; laying out the ground rules. Directed by Michael Rymer [Battlestar Galactica], the premiere establishes a tone – natural [more or less] palate in the real world; heightened palette [especially in greens and yellows] in the Town Center. The ep moves a hair faster than deliberate, with a few bursts of activity as characters act out their frustrations.

Now that Persons Unknown has gotten underway and the largest exposition dump is over, it’s possible that the series will work its way into a solid, fascinating, atmospheric mystery. I’ll continue for a few more eps to see how Persons Unknown develops – I like the mysteriousness of it all. Unfortunately, the premiere is too much info dump and too little character development, so it could lose viewers who are not instantly hooked on the mystery.

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