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'Persons Unknown' recap: I always feel like (Somebody's watching me)

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Stop me if you heard this one. A gaggle of strangers, each with a distinct personality and back-story, find themselves marooned together in a place they don’t entirely understand and are trying desperately to leave. Now just imagine that it’s set on a tropical island, and what do you have?

Gilligan’s Island, of course. Why, what did you think I was referring to? High concept TV stretches far back before this recent crop of serial thrillers, to a time when mothers were cars, horses were horses, of course, of course, and Patrick McGoohan was not a number. It’s that last show, The Prisoner, that this new summertime series from The Usual Suspects writer Christopher McQuarrie most resembles. The eponymous group of unknown persons are being held captive for reasons that are unclear, by people whose motives are unknown; they are surveilled constantly, and forcibly kept within the confines of their not necessarily uncomfortable environs. All it needs is a giant weather balloon to police the perimeter. (Or maybe a koala in a party mask that shoots sleeping gas out of its eyes.)

The pilot began with Janet, our primary character, being kidnapped while her daughter played unwittingly on a San Francisco playground. She woke up in a locked hotel room, only to be saved by Joe, a.k.a. the Man With the Mysterious Past, who broke down her door and informed her that a key was taped to the inside of the hotel Bible. Once out in the corridor, we were introduced to some more of our carefully crafted cast of characters: the Soldier, the Partying Blonde, the Potentially Crazy Lady in a Bathrobe, and Cameron Frye. Later, in the police station, we had the displeasure of meeting the Designated D-Bag, whose selfish actions and all-around terribleness will ensure he’s the first one to go should there end up being any Saw-style shenanigans.

The characters were continuously monitored via CCTV, and it’s unclear so far who’s doing the monitoring. However, if the semi-spherical black security cameras are any indication, it’s probably the security guards at J.C. Penney. Of course, it could be Big Brother, either Orwellian or Julie Chenian, that’s watching their every move. Perhaps it’ll just turn out to be a modestly sized, but gradually dwindling, audience of NBC viewers.

After discovering that they couldn’t leave the premises of the ghost town without an invisible fence triggering a long, drug-induced pavement nap, the crew found out they weren’t alone. A Chinese kitchen staff appeared out of the ether to bring the dozers back to consciousness and then offered them all some dinner in their restaurant. It appears that the series is trying to do for lo mein what Twin Peaks did for pie. Luckily there’s no one else there, so they don’t have to wait for five, ten minutes before being seated and digging in. Soon enough it was time for fortune cookies, with each containing either some eerily apt advice or a generic fortune-y aphorism. Janet’s fortune was the most specific, informing her that if she killed her neighbor, she’ll be allowed to go free, which seems all scary and dramatic, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten that one at my local Hunan Delight.

It all ended with the camera zooming out of the motel, now being run by a weasely night manager, out of the town, into the air and up to the clouds, revealing that the whole premises (and premise) was only a single speck of civilization in a big, black expanse that might end up being anything from the Adirondacks, to Mars, to purgatory, to a dream that Albert Einstein is having after eating a bit of bad bratwurst before going to bed. Who knows? That’s the fun of shows like this, and what always makes the journey more fun than the ultimate overly expository destination. All we do know is that the deserted town is isolated enough that no one would be able to hear any of them scream. Not even you, Alan Ruck.

So what did you guys think of the premiere of Persons Unknown? Intrigued? Bored? Like the characters, were you hungry again for more after an hour? Are you scared that you’ll only get invested in the show exactly at the moment they decide to cancel it?

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