The first hour of Christopher McQuarrie’s first foray into television, the mystery-drama “Persons Unknown” is exactly how you would set up a TV show with a finite number of episodes (in this case 13). The premise is killer: seven strangers wake up in a hotel in a small town in the middle of nowhere. The town looks a lot like a Hollywood movie backlot, and everything there is to see can be seen from the porch of its lone hotel. There is a Chinese restaurant, a Sheriff’s office, phones that don’t work, and other stores to provide the basic necessities of life, but beyond those buildings, there are only … mountains.
As the show opens, divorcee Janet (Daisy Betts) is at the park with her 5-year old daughter when strangers abduct her. Janet, not her child. Janet wakes up in a mostly empty hotel, unsure of how she got there, where “there” is, or who the culprits are. She quickly meets Joe (Jason Wiles), another abductee, and soon the two locate others in the same predicament: the high-strung Charlie (Alan Ruck), who longs to return to his dependent wife; empathetic grief counselor Moira (Tina Holmes); tough Marine Sergeant McNair (Chadwick Boseman); happy-to-lucky car salesman Blackham (Sean O’Bryan); and party girl Tori (Kate Lang Johnson), who wakes up with one mean hangover and the best line of the pilot. Later, the hotel finds itself staffed with a night manager (Andy Greenfield), who has no idea how he got there, but only knows that he applied for a night manager’s position at a hotel and, well, got it.
The strangers quickly realize that leaving the town is impossible, thanks to precautions taken by their captors while they were unconscious. The order of the day is mystery, questions, and some hints to get the audience guessing at the reasons behind it all. Beyond the seven individuals trapped in the small ghost town, there are parallel interludes taking place in San Francisco, where a reporter (Gerald Kyd) has found clues to Janet’s abduction. As the reporter goes about his investigation, it becomes clear that he, too, is being watched. Or at least, the people he’s talking to are being monitored by the same mysterious individuals scrutinizing every movement of our seven strangers via omnipresent security cameras.
“Persons Unknown” stars Jason Wiles, late of the NBC cop drama “Third Watch”. Wiles’s Joe is the mystery within the mystery – a man with uncommon knowledge who refuses to divulge much about himself to his impromptu allies other than the fact that no one would care to kidnap him because, as he puts it, he’s not worth much to anyone but himself. Daisy Betts fills the role of the female love interest as Janet, the single mother determined to get home to her five-year old daughter at any cost. There is some chemistry between Wiles and Betts, or maybe she’s just really suspicious of him and his motives. Wiles makes for a capable hero, and I always thought he had too little to do on “Third Watch”. Here, the mystery surrounding his character should make for some interesting drama as the strangers are forced to trust one another, which becomes difficult when all one of them is willing to do is tell them his first name. And really, how can they even be sure “Joe” is his real name? It sure is common enough…
The pilot episode is written by show creator Christopher McQuarrie, and directed by TV genre vet Michael Rymer of “Battlestar Galactica” fame. The pilot is all drama, questions, and mystery, and just a little dash of action. But since a show like “Persons Unknown” is not going to live and die by its action scenes (or lack thereof), that doesn’t really become an issue. At least, in the early goings. The pilot also doesn’t offer any introductions to the bad guys whatsoever, so that’s another mystery that will surely be peeled back as the show slowly unravels. Is it one person? Two? An entire crew of people? And how do they control the people who come and go in order to keep the prisoners alive? So many questions, so few answers.
As of this review, NBC is setting up the show as a mega mini-series, with a finite number of episodes (13 in all) before the end is revealed. That seems like the best option, as an ongoing series where people can’t leave a small town would get a little redundant, not to mention stretching the premise beyond reason. This isn’t “Lost”, there is no massive island to endlessly explore, after all.
“Persons Unknown” premieres later this month on June 7 on NBC, 10/9 central on Mondays. Check your local listings.