Truly terrible television can be a work of art unto itself. Much as we can love the emotional wallop of “Friday Night Lights,” the warmth of “The Cosby Show” or the intricate humor of “Arrested Development,” it’s possible to feel a great deal of affection for transcendently bad TV like “Pink Lady and Jeff” or “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer.” Those were bad shows, but they were almost epic in their badness, and that’s preferable to the great middle in which a lot of TV exists.
I will say this for ABC’s “Zero Hour,” which debuts tomorrow night at 8: it will never, ever, be confused with quality, and I’m not even sure I want to watch another episode after the pilot, but there are moments where it is – intentionally or not – more fun than all but a handful of new shows to debut this season. Long after I’ve forgotten “Made in Jersey,” “Deception” or even a reasonably good show like “Ben and Kate,” I’m going to remember the bugnuts absurdity of “Zero Hour,” the greatest show ever made about evil Nazi clocks. If anything, I wish it were dumber more often.
Well, technically the clocks weren’t Nazi-made. And they may not be evil. But there are Nazis here, and there is evil, and oh my is there a lot of talk about clocks – much of it said by an elderly German actor who wraps his mouth around the word “clocks” in such a way that I would almost prefer “Zero Hour” be an otherwise dialogue-less show in which the action was frequently punctuated by this man barking out, “You must find these clocks!”
“Zero Hour” is the sort of show that opens up with a group of Rosicrucian priests being executed by the Nazis, with one dying priest declaring, “It is up to God now,” while a colleague replies, “Not even God can help anymore. It is up to The Twelve.” And it’s the sort of show that can end its pilot with Anthony Edwards inside a Nazi submarine buried in the Canadian tundra, as the aforementioned German clockmaker rants about a coming storm that “will pit science against religion, country against country… And that storm is called… Zero Hour!”
If the entire series was pitched at that level, I’d have set the DVR season pass weeks ago and cleared my Thursday schedule through the spring. It’s an absurd Dan Brown rip-off, but at least in those moments embraces the lunacy of a concept involving nefarious clocks and evil Nazi babies.
The problem is that “Zero Hour” is either unwilling or unable to be that crazy all the time. Too much of it is a dour chase story in which professional conspiracy-debunker Edwards(*) is forced to confront the reality of this clock conspiracy if he ever wants to rescue his kidnapped wife, who made the mistake of buying one of those pesky time pieces at a flea market.
(*) Edwards once upon a time had a flair for zaniness, but too many years on “ER” sucked it right out of him. You don’t hire the former Mark Greene these days if you’re looking for a light touch.
Edwards wanders around the outdated offices of his print magazine reminding his young colleagues (who, aware of what year this takes place in, present him story ideas they find on their iPads) of the motto “Don’t start with the headline: start with the facts.” The series is about him learning to go on faith rather than facts, but “Zero Hour” – created by Paul Scheuring, the man responsible (for good or for ill) for “Prison Break” – seems just as conflicted about giving into the weirdness, or at least unable to do it on a network series budget, and with the hope of spinning out the clock mystery for years on end.
As a result, I don’t know that I can even recommend “Zero Hour” under the So Bad It’s Good theory. At times, its badness is intoxicating – and those are the times I’ll remember fondly long after this show is gone. One magical day when I have unlimited free time and video access, I want to make a supercut of memorable moments from otherwise forgettable series, which would include the “Give me back my nano pants!” scene from CBS’ “Century City,” Ron Silver barking, “His father is the DISTRICT ATTORNEY!” in FOX’s “Skin,” the “Monkeys have been known to eat their young” from NBC’s already-canceled “Do No Harm,” and the entire closing monologue from the “Zero Hour” pilot.
I don’t know if those shows would have lasted significantly longer if they had gone more willingly to the dark side. But I’d have enjoyed them a lot more consistently if they had.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org