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Persons Unknown: Pilot

“What do you want from me?!”

The Usual Suspects is about the trust we put in stories and storytellers. In the main story, the five heroes join forces on the basis of what they know (that is, what they’re heard) about each other. In the frame narrative, the cops trust Verbal Kint to tell them the full story as best he can, and they trust themselves to figure out the rest. And, outside of all that, we viewers trust the writer and director to tell us what’s going on. On all three of those levels, trust gets misplaced—but with a happy result: a rollicking good story that doesn’t feel like a cheat.

I’ve been thinking about viewer trust quite a bit in the wake of the Lost finale. I’ve also been thinking about the elegance of stories that manage to play with the idea of storytelling and fictionality without making me feel like I’ve wasted my time or been scammed into caring. Both Lost and The Usual Suspects used their narrative styles to highlight some of their most important themes—or maybe it’s the other way around.

On Lost, we started with flashbacks, then flashforwards: straightforward narratives told in a not-straightforward manner. Then we got time travel and the flash-sideways; in both cases, the time-out-of-whack plot (order in which the story is told) began to influence the subject (the stuff that happens). In The Usual Suspects, the primary story is one big flashback told by Verbal to an audience of policemen, and an audience of us. How much to believe him, and even how he interacts with the audience, is a huge component of The Usual Suspects’ twists and turns. (All of which we should keep out of the comments, by the way, in case anyone hasn’t seen it yet. Which would be tragic--go watch the darn movie already!)

In The Usual Suspects, it works. I’ve probably seen that movie 20 times, and every time I enjoy it more. Lost, on the other hand? I’m still ambivalent. After years of listening to Damon and Carlton’s podcasts, in which Carlton would say it’s all about the characters and Damon would add that it’s also all about the mysteries…well, I feel like there’s a story they forgot to tell. And I’m also starting to think it’s darn weird that I accepted a situation in which the storytellers felt compelled to explain themselves on a weekly basis, and didn’t just let us figure it out on our own.

That’s quite a preamble for just a regular ole pilot review, I know. But many of us, post-Lost, post-FlashForward, etc., are a bit gun-shy about yet another show that promises mystery, complexity, and outstanding characters. Then again, Persons Unknown was written by Christopher McQuarrie, writer of The Usual Suspects. And, for now, I’m choosing to trust this storyteller, even if it does mean I get burned again.

Persons Unknown is about six people abducted from various places and dropped into a town in the middle of nowhere. After quite a few “You’re the kidnapper!” “No, you are!” back-and-forths, our abductees start to puzzle out what’s going on. They notice a preponderance of surveillance cameras. They formulate a plan. The plan goes awry. And then some bizarrely unexpected stuff happens. And that’s all I can tell you without spoiling anything.

But I can tell you this: it’s good. Sure, it’s not the most original plot in the world—it’s basically Ten Little Indians meets Saw meets The Prisoner. But, as we’d expect from McQuarrie, who also penned Valkyrie and is slated to write the next X-Men movie, it’s the little character interactions, motivations, and shades of meaning that make this compelling.

My favorite moment, the one you should watch for, is when Charlie (Alan Ruck from Ferris Bueller), who’s gone so far as to call Sgt. McNair (Chadwick Boseman) a “grunt,” suddenly starts following the good sergeant’s orders. Charlie is all bluster: he thinks he wants to be in charge, but he’s actually just a submissive little boy who’s way out of his league. Then again, maybe he’s not: Charlie and Joe (Jason Wiles, who looks super-familiar because he was on 90210 when I was in junior high) wait a beat too long when they first meet. Do they know each other? Or was it just a weird moment? I love that I am not only asking those questions, but also spending some time figuring Charlie out aside from the mysteries. I love that McQuarrie, et. al., trust me to ask myself some of these questions, and to try to answer them, even if I don’t answer them correctly on the first try.

Remember back when we didn’t know what to think of Henry Gale? Remember how exciting that was? None of the characters, or the actors, on Persons Unknown are quite as phenomenal as Michael Emerson’s Henry. But they don’t spend hours explaining themselves, or telling us what’s just happened, or reminding us of what’s going on in case we have that weird Memento short-term memory condition. They’re very confused people who react differently to the bizarre situation in which they find themselves. And we get to watch.

Persons Unknown is being billed as a mini-series "event" by NBC, and it looks like there are about 10 episodes, if Imdb is any indication. I doubt the “answers” to why these people wound up in this artificial all-American town will be life-shattering, and I don’t necessarily want that from this show. But, if this pilot is any indication, watching these people interact and try to deal with their highly artificial situation just might make for a great new show.

Let us know what you think in the comments. And you can give this pilot as many lazy susans as you think it deserves!

3.5 out of four lazy susans.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. I liked it. It was intriguing and fascinating and it got me thinking about all kinds of sci-fi scenarios. My favorite is probably the "feasiblity" something, an Outer Limits episode about a neighborhood that got transported to another planet.

    And I particularly loved the lazy susan fortune cookie scene.

    Let's hope the rest of it lives up to its premiere.

  2. I enjoyed it too. It's creepy and mysterious at the same time.

    Thanks for your review, Josie. I have never seen Usual Suspects and will be putting it on my queue.


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