“Persons Unknown”: A Method to the madness

Persons Unknown” isn’t the type of show that I plan on writing about every week, but quite frankly, I’m surprised that I plan on writing it with any regularity at all. To be honest,  I didn’t even know it existed until the week before it aired. I’m not sure that says something about NBC’s promotional machine or my personality propensity to watch The Peacock, but it snuck up on me all the same. I didn’t exactly leap for joy upon finally seeing a commercial for it, but in the dog days of summer, I decided to give it a Season Pass and see what happened.

personsunknown-nbc.jpgSo what’s happened? Not a whole lot, if you break it down, but enough to keep me interested. A show can work on many levels, but almost never works on all of them. “Persons Unknown” works nearly ENTIRELY on the level of its premise, which borrows liberally (and shaggily) from various narrative antecedents. But just as a Jay-Z can still work while riffing on songs from the musical “Annie,” “Persons Unknown” doesn’t suffer from drawing in elements of “Lost,” “The Prisoner,” and a gaggle of other shows that came before it. “Persons” isn’t claiming to reinvent the wheel here: it just wants you to follow said wheel down into the rabbit hole.

Consequently, my interest on the show lays largely on what’s in the shadows…or, to be more accurate, what’s behind the cameras. The situation in which these strangers find themselves may not be new, but I’m intrigued as to this show’s take on this situation. We got a little hint in this week’s episode, “Exit One,” that bolstered my initial theory after the show’s second episode, “The Edge.” The last time I was making predictions, it was for “Lost.” So I’m a little rusty here, and a little uncomfortable making predictions in a show that doesn’t involve time travel and smoke monsters. So bear with me here.

In “Exit One,” we learn that Joe Tucker is working with at least one member in the Chinese restaurant to employ “The Method” on these unsuspecting people. Let’s assume that we’re not talking Less Strasberg here (especially considering the overall acting level on this program) and let’s think something more militaristic. After “The Edge,” two words came to mind: Abu Ghraib. Here’s my more than likely incorrect theory: what we’re seeing is the 21st-century, post-9/11, kinder gentler interrogation facility. A place where waterboarding is a thing of the past, only the quick rush of the faucets inside the hotel you can never escape. The point isn’t to kill you with kindness, but driving you crazy from it wouldn’t be so bad.

All those cameras? Collecting intel, seeing how these various people with their various backgrounds would interact in what’s essentially a psychological sandbox. Get someone with a child at home. Someone with grief over a deceased wife. Someone with daddy issues. Someone who already questions her sanity. So on and so forth. All the theoretical possibilities are naught without actual data. Thus, these seven. Or, rather, six, plus one on the inside to guarantee that certain players make certain decisions under the false guise of free will.

All decent stuff, and certainly helps me get through some of the show’s rough patches (around half of each episode is Fast-Forward worthy without any fear of missing anything important) and leaden dialogue (if Bill mentioned Charlie’s dead wife one more time, I personally would have smothered him with a pillow). Like I said: shows work on multiple levels. In terms of character and dialogue, it fails nearly any smell test. But the story in which these 2D characters speaking wooden words is worth the work at this point. There might be a Method to this madness just yet. If not, hey, the Fall will be here soon enough. For now, I’m happy to enjoy the “Unknown” for what it is.

How about you?


  1. Jesse Jackson
    Posted June 29, 2010 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    I’m enjoying it. I think it is a perfect summer mini-series. I think of it as more of a video game, that the players/captives need to accomplish certain tasks or live through certain experiances before they can be released. But with the twist at the end of the latest episode, I’m not sure what the heck is going on.

    I do know I don’t care at all about the newspaper writer or too much else that is happening outside the town.

  2. jbrown84
    Posted June 29, 2010 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    Hello Ryan from a Zap2it transplant!

    I’m pretty much in 100% agreement with you here. The only characters/character development I find interesting at all is the pairing of Moira (even if she is somewhat of a Hurley ripoff) and Graham.

    This episode pulled me back in just when it was about to lose me. I have an irrational fear of bees, so that scene was terrifying to me, and the twist at the end was great.

  3. S.L.
    Posted June 30, 2010 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    As wooden and at times Mystery Science Theater 3K level of ridiculous as the show can be, I’m enjoying it more than the last season of Lost due to the lack of pretension and knowing it will end this summer. If they ever start dropping literary references or meet in heaven, I’ll take that back.

    Do you think are more undercover people in there than just Joe? Maybe there are several, who are working various targets.

    I agree the acting leaves a lot to be desired but the work by the actress who plays Janet has grown on me. In the right role, she could have a solid future on tv.

    I’m surprised they haven’t made more an effort by now to find out by now where the night manager sleeps and go through his apartment in detail. But I guess we know now that Joe is in on it so he’d likely have discouraged them from attempting somehow.

    My best theory for now is that the captors are trying to figure out which of them is a mole or leak of some sort. It’s not much of a theory but all I have for now. ;)