Persons Unknown: A Show No One Saw And You Shouldn’t Miss

I don’t think there has ever been a network TV failure as big as this.

This really has to set some sort of record for FAIL.

And the failure is that NBC never reached us — the target audience for Persons Unknown.

Let me roll the credits first:

I didn’t hear of this show until the blog for the AMC-TV series Rubicon pointed to a Stephen King column. King recommended not only Rubicon (another series all of you should watch!) but also Persons Unknown like this:

A limited-run NBC summer series that apparently nobody watched except for relatives of the cast and crew. And me. It starts out as Under the Dome lite, with strangers trapped in a desert town they can’t leave. But thanks to the guiding influence of Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), it develops into a crazy-cool exercise in paranoia. Twin Peaks meets The Prisoner.

Well, a remake of The Prisoner is what AMC itself tried — and it was a disaster.

Plus, I’m not really a Stephen King fan. But he connected it to Rubicon, which I know is excellent, so he got my curiosity engaged.

Within 24 hours, I had the series. Which is no thanks to NBC — they’ve removed the online episodes and the DVD set still isn’t available.

Usually, I can’t watch more than two hours of video in a day. My youthful days of soaking up near-unlimited TV is behind me.

But Persons Unknown gripped me.

I wound up watching five episodes on Saturday, six episodes Sunday, and the final two straight thing yesterday morning! (Then the cable went out while I was composing this post!)

The first seven episodes are excellent. It has network TV seams in it, though: people will get the shit kicked out of them and be speaking normally within seconds. There’s no space in any of the episodes for people to slow down and just think. They move this story fast. But, to its credit, overall it hewed close to reality and the people acted real. Some of the banter drops to comic book level, but not bad comic book level. I didn’t outright cringe, but I noticed it.

However every damned episode of those seven had a twist that knocked me for a loop.

Then came episode 8, and I thought the series jumped the track. Episode 9 wasn’t much better, but 10 and then 11 got back on track, with the final two episodes, 12 and 13, really sealing the deal.

The story is what any remake/update of The Prisoner should have been. A group of people wake up in a deserted small town in the middle of nowhere. Unlike The Prisoner, there is no revolving Number Two (although there seems to be), there’s no overt brainwashing or compulsion being used, and no one — especially us, the viewer — can figure out what the hell is going on. It keeps both the characters and us watching on our toes.

Things depart from the reality they carefully crafted with episode 8 and the White Room. After so much careful scripting, I couldn’t believe they fell to such cliche. I don’t know if it was network interference (it had the odor of it) or if they lost sight of what they started out doing. But like the second episode of the new BBC Sherlock series of three, I held my nose and continued.

And it was worth it! Episode 13 ended with the most chilling line I’ve ever heard in a TV series (which I won’t spoil by revealing).

And dig this (minor spoiler): Mid-stride, they kill off a character and introduce a new one. This is not something that’s supposed to happen in conventional network TV. They even had to redo the opening credits (what I cite above is a melange of the original and revised, so everyone’s name gets in).

After I started, but before I finished, this post I went and read an episode-by-episode recap by Copyhacker over at TVgasm. It’s as if we had watched different shows. In his favor, he’s seen a lot more TV than I have, so his references to things such as Lost (which I never watched) and Ferris Bueller (ditto) went over my head. But this series even got to him in places. I quote:

Good on ya, writers, for sneaking one past the Copyhacker.

And:

Still, I’m kinda digging this return to the early-season paranoia.

And:

That’s kind of awesome and I almost don’t care that it’s totally unexplained.

And:

You guys! I should’ve seen that coming, but I’m glad I didn’t. Five minutes before the end, the show totally redeems itself.

And:

Everyone meets up and head to the elevator without a word, in this resigned way that is totally awesome.

And he was pressing on his Snark pedal non-stop through his recaps.

But even his attention to detail missed a continuity error I caught:

From episode 1:

What is supposed to be the same thing, in episode 2:

(That’s just a small spoiler, so don’t worry.)

Great art direction also makes the series a must-see:

With a bit of humor:

And in the outside world, an investigator actually drives this car:

The other thing Copyhacker missed is that they apparently told the actor playing the reporter to never shave during filming, so we see his hair grow out on his face as his predicament similarly gets hairier.

I agree with Copyhacker about not understanding what the hell anyone saw in Janet. She’s as much a non-entity as Michael in AMC’s Prisoner remake was. And post episode-8, you reallllly have to suspend a wide swath of disbelief where she’s concerned.

Still, I loved watching this series and I’m pissed as hell that I might have missed it altogether were it not for a twisty path to a recommendation from Stephen King that happened to hit me at the right time.

I know that while that prat, Jeff Zucker, was in charge of NBC, things fell apart. But to the point where even its publicity division couldn’t properly get out the word about a series that was made for Internet denizens? That’s just, as we say here, an Epic FAIL.

Go get Persons Unknown from wherever you can: check Netflix, any streaming services, or, ahem, you know, the Internet.

It’s really the best way to see it: without commercial interruptions.

It’s a real shame this became Series Unknown.

5 Comments

Filed under TV

5 responses to “Persons Unknown: A Show No One Saw And You Shouldn’t Miss

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention NEW POST: Persons Unknown: A Show No One Saw And You Shouldn't Miss: #TV -- Topsy.com

  2. Madeline

    Thank you for the rec, Mike. We both love ‘Rubicon’, so I totally trust your judgment. I’ll be searching the, ahem, torrent of life that the internet is. Looking forward to for this one! :)

    • mikecane

      It’s not Rubicon, it’s vastly different. The story moves fast at times and is really, really twisty. But I liked this series.

  3. Michael Perry

    Thanks for the great write-up on the series! I was a writer & consulting producer on the show, and reading your kind commentary is a pleasure.

    Strangely enough my favorite television show of all time sank without a trace in 1979, only to be rediscovered fifteen years later (which is when I saw it): an ITV show called “The Sandbaggers”. Though we’re no “Sandbaggers” the hope exists that, one by one, viewers might discover “Persons Unknown” through blogs like yours and comments like King’s.

    best,

    M

    • mikecane

      Thanks for Commenting. Everyone out here is still waiting for the DVD set! Now you’ve got me all interested in The Sandbaggers. Seems like the sort of thing people who also watched Rubicon would like.

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