*The following review is after having seen the first three episodes
I stumbled across “Persons Unknown” on a recommendation by someone taken in by the show. That’s either a major plus or major minus of watching most of your television online. Channel flipping doesn’t drop me into shows I’d otherwise never know were on and the endless cacophony of ads during other shows doesn’t tell me about new shows. Of course, that does mean that the quality of shows I stumble across is higher since word of mouth is actually a more reliable indicator of quality than the ads run by a company for itself. Who would have thought?
“Persons Unknown” is a one-shot 13-episode series that was filmed last year and then shopped around for a buyer. There have been some rumors that there might be a second season if the ratings are good, but the bottom line is that the 13 episodes were shot as one self-contained story. Although there are always potential plot threads and mysteries to expand upon with additional stories in any fictional universe, NBC insists that all the questions raised by the show are answered by the end of the 13 episodes. Hopefully that doesn’t mean that the little town contains the mystical butt plug of the universe or that they start having sex with pre-sentient humans and float their fleet into the sun. Because it would be really embarrassing to be both derivative and disappointing.
“Persons Unknown” feels exactly like a Stephen King novella. Seven strangers are mysteriously kidnapped and dumped into a tiny ghost town. They cannot identify anything they have in common, or any semi-believable reason why they’ve been kidnapped. The characters are distinct: the soldier, the party girl, the sleazy car salesman, the rich guy, the single mom, the brooding dark and mysterious guy, and the psychiatrist.
It quickly becomes clear that something both elaborate and strange is going on. They’re not simply in a prison. There are no guards of any kind. A van pulls in a few times a day packed with Chinese who speak barely a word of English and cook them all their meals … “the best damned Chinese food I’ve ever had” one character observes. The fortune cookies contain gems like “kill your neighbor and you’ll go free.” Cameras watch from every angle. Damage done anywhere is inexplicably repaired the next time someone returns to the spot. A nightwatchman shows up at the hotel and acts as if nothing is out of the ordinary in the least. There’s only one flavor of ice cream in town and it’s the favorite flavor of one of the characters. A television flickers on and shows one of the characters something that another character did, before ever coming to the town. All attempts to leave the town lead to creative obstacles. For example, they quickly discover that if they just try to walk out of town, they’ll collapse into unconsciousness.
So what the show excels at is setting up a wonderfully strange situation. Unfortunately it has a few glaring weak spots that knock it down a couple of pegs. First, the show spends far too much time on the characters’ schemes to get out of the town and far too little on the interaction between them. At this point three episodes in, the characters have more or less paired off for their scenes. The rich guy and the car salesman have almost all of their scenes together. The single mom and the broody guy. The psychiatrist and the party girl. The soldier spreads it around a little more, but tends to be off doing stuff alone more than the others. By the end of the third episode, the characters have been in town for ten days and yet there is no real feeling of camaraderie between them. No sense of getting to know each other, besides the clumsy pair offs. These people have absolutely nothing to do day and night other than talking to each other, but we see almost nothing in the way of conversation. The premise of the psychological mind fuck wears thin very quickly if we don’t get to hear the conversations, if we don’t actually get a window into their psychology instead of just into the ways they think of escaping.
That’s another problem. They are trapped in one hell of an elaborate rat maze and all they try to do is get out of it, as if this is nothing more than being kidnapped and locked in a room. Not one of them ever stops to think about the big picture, about the game. If you are dropped into a game, you have three choices. Lose the game, win the game, or knock the board over. For example, there is the enigmatic night watchman who is hinted to be as much a victim as them but in a different way. The characters act like there are only two options: leave him alone or torture him into talking. The latter is rejected by the more ethical characters, leaving the former as the result. I do not want to see another conversation about “oh my god I have to get out, I HAVE A DAUGHTER,” I want to see someone sit down and talk with the night watchman, see the chess game of dialogue.
The final problem is that they cut away to follow the progress of a journalist who is investigating the disappearance of one of the characters. The tension drains out of the show every time it cuts away from the town itself. The story here is in the claustrophobia and psychological game of the town itself. Cutting away to someone trying to figure out what’s going on hints at hope of rescue from the outside and doesn’t particularly add anything to the story. Imagine if several times an episode “Lost” had cut away to a reporter trying to track down where that missing plane went.
“Persons Unknown” is a good show, definitely a decent summer bit of popcorn entertainment. Thus far it hasn’t really managed to get over the hurdle into the “holy shit, they just did what?” territory that the premise promises, but it is certainly an entertaining diversion. Ironically, the 13 episode cap makes it more interesting rather than less. If I’d seen these three episodes and knew it was an indefinite show, or one that had four more seasons to go, I’d actually be less inclined to commit the time. But with only nine left … well, I want to know what happens enough to let them finish their story.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.