A couple weeks back, Sepinwall discussed — not for the first time and not for the last — the concept of the bottle episode, a single-set, one-off episode devised to save budget within a contained run of a series. He called the “Fly” episode of “Breaking Bad” one of the best bottle shows ever and I’m not inclined to disagree.
TV Review: NBC’s ‘Persons Unknown’
In this era of closely monitored TV budgets and year-round scheduling, it shouldn’t be surprising that we’re finally being treated to a full-on bottle *series*, in the form of NBC’s “Persons Unknown,” which premieres on Monday (June 7) night.
Shot in Mexico and featuring a cast that mixes familiar faces (but not household names) and relative newcomers, “Persons Unknown” is the latest piece of internationally financed production trickery from Fox Television Studios, following in the footsteps of shows like “Mental,” “Defying Gravity” and ABC’s upcoming “The Gates.”
Thanks to a tight script by Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”) and savvy direction from Michael Rymer (“Battlestar Galactica”), “Persons Unknown” establishes its familiar premise with a tight proficiency.
For a show like “Persons Unknown,” though, the pilot is the easy part. Getting audiences intrigued for one week shouldn’t be hard. And it succeeds. Providing enough twists and turns and creativity to fill subsequent episodes will be the challenge. Having only seen the pilot? Who knows.
Review after the break…
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A group of strangers wake up in an unfamiliar location. They don’t know where they are, how they got there or who brought them there. They’re disoriented, paranoid and nervous, but they slowly begin to unravel the mystery/conspiracy behind their abduction. Of course they all have secrets, but they end up bonding even though some of them may know more about their circumstances than they’re letting on. It’s society in a vague, cryptic tableau.
It’s the basic premise, with variations obviously, behind things like “Lost,” “The Prisoner,” “Identity” or even the “Saw” flicks. It’s been utilized in countless films, short stories and TV episodes. Nearly every aspiring indie writer has a script from this subgenre sitting in a desk somewhere, again with variations, because this kind of parlor mystery can be set in almost any location and with characters who can initially be presented in little more than shorthand.
In “Persons Unknown,” the characters find themselves in a creepy abandoned hotel in a creepy abandoned town that’s distinctive only for its absence of distinction. There’s a Chinese restaurant, a taxidermist, a hardware/sporting goods store, a dress shop, a sheriff’s office (no sheriff) and phones everywhere, all dead.
Obviously none of the people are there of their own volition and none of them can figure out what they have in common.
Fortunately, I was quickly able to see what they have in common: They’re all loosely sketched characters who bear striking resemblances to dozens of characters from similar stories. There’s Joe (Jason Wiles), who won’t disclose his occupation, but has a skill set suggesting military or something more nefarious. There’s Charlie (Alan Ruck), an investment advisor who tries to put a potential value on all of the evictees. There’s the military dude (Chadwick Boseman), who one can only assume Saw Things, Horrible Things, In War. There’s Janet (Daisy Betts), a single mother who suspects her sketchy ex may be involved. There’s the hot party girl (Kate Lang Johnson) who may be accustomed to waking up in unfamiliar locales with no memory of what came the night before.
In something of a cheat, when things get too claustrophobic in the Location Unknown, we cut to an intrepid writer and editor (Lola Glaudini) attempting to get to the bottom of at least one of these disappearances. Feh, says I. Forget the outside world. Don’t leave your bottle.
McQuarrie’s actual vision for “Persons Unknown” probably won’t be evident until the full first season unfolds. He’s not about to tell you the hows or whys or whos in the first hour, so you’re gonna have to be patient. There are a few fresh ideas in the pilot script, but it’s still mostly about arranging the chess pieces on the board and he knows there’s a set format he can’t deviate from. A certain amount of tension develops between the characters, but not in especially unexpected ways. The dialogue, characters and circumstances in the pilot are intentionally spare and while there are elements of quirkiness injected throughout, it’s not as obnoxiously self-conscious as something like ABC’s “Happy Town.”
But maybe there’s a medium between “Persons Unknown” and “Happy Town” that might be ideal? There’s a minimalism to “Persons Unknown” that makes the show seem appealingly efficient, but that gives little indication of the scope of the story. This could be a conspiracy which, as the parlance states, “goes all the way to the top,” but feels like it mostly goes all the way to an intentionally stagey backlot in Mexico. That is to say that after watching the pilot, I’m *curious* to know more, but I’m not clamoring or obsessed or anything.
Much of the success of the pilot can be attributed to Rymer, who uses a recognizable back of Hitchcockian cinematic grammar to create disorientation and paranoia. This is a terrific example of a director taking a clearly low budget and making the limitations into an attribute, through camera placements that find meaning in the cheapness of the sets and alienated environments. Fueling the visual style is a surveillance motif, as the characters are constantly being observed by cameras covered with reflective black domes. Perhaps knowing Rymer’s “Battlestar” background, I found myself thinking that the obsidian orbs were being treated like the oscillating glowing red eyes of the Cylons. They’re predatory.
The actors? Everybody’s fine, but nobody stands out because who has time for character when there’s this much premise to establish? I’ve always liked Wiles, who NBC would like you to think of as one of the stars of “Third Watch,” but who will always be Colin from “Beverly Hills, 90210” in my book. This is a good opportunity for Ruck to play serious for an entire series run, rather than just offering solid guest appearances on dramas, like his early season stint on “Justified.” And Betts, who I really don’t recognize from anything, makes a solid initial impression.
The actor I’m watching out for is Reggie Lee, both because he’s recognizable (“Prison Break,” “Tropic Thunder”) and because his character is one element that immediately had me raising an eyebrow. You’ll see what I meant when you get there.
If “Persons Unknown” were airing in the fall, my interest would probably wane after one or two episodes. It’s not quite generic, but it also isn’t dynamic enough to stand out in a sea of new programming options. In the summer, though? I’ll gladly give McQuarrie and executive producer Rémi Aubuchon the chance to show where they’re taking this reliable chestnut of a plot. In June and July? I’m just a more generous TV viewer. “Persons Unknown” already has me more engaged than last summer’s forgettable NBC dramas like “The Listener” and “The Philanthropist.” Hopefully, “Persons Unknown” won’t disappoint me.
“Persons Unknown” premieres on Monday, June 7 on NBC.