NBC's twisty fable includes nods to Stephen King, World of Warcraft, and that show about plane-crash survivors

By Jeff Jensen
September 21, 2010 at 05:01 AM EDT
Dean Hendler/NBC
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  • TV Show

The Event has arrived. But are we ready for it? The show—another mystery-driven, sci-fi tinged catastrophe culture saga where the past is a conspiracy to be untangled, the future is a code to be cracked, and the present is a conflict of hidden agendas to be exposed–comes after a turbulent, tiring year for such stuff. Lost ended after six captivating but taxing years with a polarizing finale. Heroes, sickly for longer than it was healthy, was finally put out of its misery. FlashForward launched, lurched, crashed. It’ll be interesting to see how many viewers thought The Event was a happening worth investigating. In recent seasons, freaky-geeky fables about our murky, nervy times have proven capable of inspiring massive curiosity (see: the strong debuts for The Bionic Woman, Fringe, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, FlashForward), if not always sustaining it. But after the finishes, flushes and failures of last season, I wonder about the genre’s current allure, especially when it’s manifested in the form of a show that would seem to demand a long-term commitment in order to derive ultimate satisfaction. Are we ready to go steady with another piece of strange so soon after a year of hard break-ups and bad dates? The Event will test the hypothesis.

All that said, I really enjoyed the pilot for The Event. It had me at the title. What is ‘The Event?’ I want to know! I’m just a sucker for Mystery Shows That Label Their Core Mysteries With Ominously Generic Blank Canvas Nomenclature. (See: The Monster, The Others, The Numbers…) All the better for capturing the imagination–and inspiring fans to project their own theories onto the proceedings. The Event‘s characters introduced themselves as likable individuals with interesting, urgent conflicts; I look forward to getting to know them better (and seeing them fleshed out with some real complexity) as the series moves forward. (FYI: The NBC website for The Event includes character profiles that are rich in details that the pilot didn’t provide but salient to the series going forward; I’ll be drawing from that info in this recap.) I enjoyed the fragmented, non-linear structure; I thought it was a smart way to corral and drive a sprawling story comprised of multiple, interconnected plots and people. Some critics deemed this storytelling approach as artificial and contrived. I found it necessary and entertaining. I’m shallow that way.

The premiere, entitled “I Haven’t Told You Everything” (taken from the hour’s killer last line), introduced us to a population of allegedly threatening persons unknown imprisoned in a secret facility near the Arctic, although a portion of their total number could be at large, living/hiding in plain sight… maybe even right next door to you. The contingent that’s incarcerated has been interrogated, tortured and generally abused for who knows how long, for who knows why. The climactic cliffhanger spun the whole pilot on its head: What seemed to be a neo-’70s conspiracy thriller working a fuzzy political metaphor (The Parallax View meets 24) suddenly revealed itself to be a sci-fi conspiracy thriller working a fuzzy political metaphor.

Next: Flashbacks to a short-lived seriesthat perhaps only UPN aficionados will remember.

I was reminded of a short-lived show on UPN that I liked a great deal which merits your DVD time and a Hollywood reboot: Nowhere Man, starring Bruce Greenwood. The Event left me with a bunch of compelling Want To Knows. I want to know who kidnapped Leila (Sarah Roemer) and why. I want to know who The Detainees are (Terrorists? Time travelers? Aliens?) and where they come from. I want to know how that wrinkle in the fabric of reality crackled open in the sky and where that plane went. (Some may have felt sucker-punched by that WTH?! climax; I was floored by it.) I don’t need “The Answers” immediately—but if I’m not, I’d better be given good reason to be patient. That plane going into the wormhole summed up the question before all of us: Are you on board? Were you drawn in? Are you ready for a journey in mystery, destination unknown?

Your central players.

SEAN WALKER

A twentysomething lad with strong swimming skills, a slow-growing goatee (his face seems rather shy about growing hair anyplace else), and (apparently) a secret skin pouch for smuggling guns aboard airplanes, Sean Walker took his lanky natural beauty of a girlfriend Leila on a Caribbean cruise with the intention of proposing marriage. He had secured the blessing of her hyper-protective father, Michael (Scott Patterson, aka Luke from Gilmore Girls); all that remained was giving her the ring. During a hike on Saint Lucia, Sean was a half-second from popping the question when he and Leila heard a guy with a broken arm yelping for help. Broken Arm Guy’s girlfriend, Vicky, was drowning. Sean, whose overwhelming sense of selflessness and human decency knows neither fear nor common sense, leapt from the cliff and swam the girl to safety. With that, Sean and Leila and Vicky and Broken Arm Guy became Love Boat BFFs. Was it all a scam? Were Vicky and BAG footsoldiers for The Conspiracy? Soon, Leila had gone missing and the ship’s computers had been wiped clear of any proof of their Caribbean passage. It was as if History had decided: Sorry, Sean! Changed my mind! You weren’t on a cruise—and you don’t have a super-hot bikini-rocking would-be fiancée. Sucks to be you, Nowhere Man! (I’m nursing a theory about The Event—built from pieces of my old Lost research–that involves the phrases “quantum-leaping refugees from a futuretime dystopia,” “’The Event’ in The Event is the end date for a span of time-loop-affected history,” and “course correction via Novikov Self-Consistency Conjecture.” Still processing.)

Next: Wait! Do we spy a reference to Stephen King? (Yes, and also to The Matrix!)

Days later, Sean, distraught and desperate, boarded a plane and tried to stop its pilot from flying into a Miami hotel where the President was staying with his family and the leader of The Detainees, Sophia Maguire. The pilot: Leila’s father, who may or may not have been flying his would-be air bomb against will. Days earlier, his other daughter, 7-year-old Samantha, had also been abducted, and he and his wife were attacked by gunmen. Confirmed health status of his family: TBD.

Sean Walker is the show’s most compelling presence, for sure, and thank you, NBC, for not casting this part with some generic blue-steel stud poached from The CW farm system. Jason Ritter radiates genuine vulnerability and emotional accessibility. He’s got some grit and fire behind those bluesy-blue eyes, and the mix blends well to sell a guy who’s no action hero but can muster the requisite spunk and fight when needed. It was wise of The Event to dote so much on the Sean-Leila romance: If the series is going to keep them separated—if we’re going to be spending significant time watching him trying to find her (it’s going to be Jin and Sun all over again, isn’t it?)—we needed to be made to care about his motivation, about their romance. Mission accomplished for me.

Fun facts about Sean, culled from his character bio at the show’s website. Grew up poor in Chicago. An M.I.T. and ex-hacker; currently a videogame programmer. Also: “Sean was addicted to World of Warcraft until Leila made him give it up.” Also: “A big Stephen King lover, he has read The Stand seven times.” I’m betting that was the book Sean was reading on the beach prior to his aborted marriage proposal. THEORY! Is The Event an elaborate MMORPG wish-fulfillment fantasy designed by Walker? Or–and I like this one better–has all of human civilization downloaded their minds into a virtual world to save themselves from a worldwide bird flu (or zombie) pandemic? Are there rebellious psyches now revolting against this inorganic if humanity-preserving fraudulence and trying to get back to the real, natural world? Is The Event really the “Demon with a Glass Hand” episode of The Outer Limits meets World War Z meets The Matrix?

PS: What did you make of the show’s Live In The Present/Back To Nature theme? I was struck by the opening tease of the pilot, the caught-on-tape footage of people scrambling to avoid Death By Avias Airways 514, and the odd final lines from the panicking TV reporter: “Run to camera! Run to camera!” (Further proof of my virtual reality-as-Noah’s Ark theory: “Avias Air” = Avian = Bird Flu; “Run to camera!” = Climb into my digital dreamland lifeboat, everyone!)

Next: A political subplot that’s complete and total fantasy.

I was also struck by Sean’s marriage proposal, which I totally suspect was code for What This Show Is Really All About, either thematically or plot wise. Here was said marriage proposal, presented as an off-the-cuff, naturalistic ramble as he gazed into Leila’s eyes atop Caribbean Island hilltop: “You know how we’re always talking about getting away from it all, the two of us going and living on a deserted island paradise somewhere, but then we get caught up in things and forget that places like this actually exist? I just wanted to bring you here and freeze this moment in time…” (Hmmm… I wonder if Sean is also a big fan of Alex Garland’s The Beach, too.)

And finally, I was also struck by the juxtaposition of environments in the story. Nature photographer Michael Buchanan’s woodsy cabin home—and the vacuum tube constructed reality of his airplane death trap. The easy-breezy tropical paradise locales of Miami and the Caribbean—and The Detainees’ industrial hellhole, located in the unforgiving frozen tundra of the Alaskan wilderness.

My Doc Jensen senses are tingling. There’s meaning here. I know it…

PRESIDENT ELIAS MARTINEZ

He’s commanding, he’s idealistic, he’s shutting down military detainment facilities, and of course, he’s black—so President Martinez must be an Obama analog, right? We’ll see. Pushing the Guantanamo Bay/Camp X-Ray metaphor was part of the show’s fake-out—baiting us into thinking that the it was about gritty war-on-terror things, gradually switching us into seemingly sci-fi/fantasy things that perhaps will serve as metaphors for those war on terror things, or something else.

Married. A father. And he’s Afro-Cuban, according to his website profile. There was the oblique reference to childhood experience that would make him sympathetic to a community of people living in captivity for morally ambiguous if not totally illegal reasons. I did wonder: Was the name “Elias Martinez” meant to evoke the Elian Gonzalez imbroglio from 2000? The answer is… something like that! According to NBC’s character bio for President Martinez, the drums-playing Yale grad and die-hard Cincinnati Reds fans was born in Miami to Cuban refugee parents. (Cuba? Reds? Is this a joke?! Ay, caramba, el Presidente! You’re practically begging for “You’re a commie!” paranoia! I’m totally expecting a He-wasn’t-born-in-America-so-he’s-not-a-legitimate-president subplot in the weeks to come.) Other fun facts: His wife’s name is Christina, they have a 7-year-old son, and he and his VP, Raymond Jarvis, belong to separate, rival parties—“the first truly bipartisan administration in recent history.” The Event really is a total fantasy.

Next: A Deep Throat, a Benjamin Linus, a Horn-Rimmed Glasses…

Elias Matinez—who, as embodied by Blair Underwood, is simply much too handsome for a President—seems to be one of those Hollywood presidents always butting heads with war mongering military advisers and spymasters. According to Sophia Maguire, General Whitman in particular is adamantly anti-Detainee. Why? And should we assume that Blake Sterling, director of National Intelligence, isn’t worthy of our trust just because Damages Emmy winner Zeljko Ivanek, an actor who practically knows how to ooze slime on cue, plays him? I was intrigued by Sterling’s proposal: Keep The Detainees locked up; permit the media to report the truth of their existence. Information about these folks: Okay. Allowing them to walk among us: Not okay. What makes them such a threat?

SOPHIA MAGUIRE

The Event’s poker-faced keeper and stingy dispenser of secrets. Every mystery saga needs one—a Deep Throat, a Benjamin Linus, a Horn-Rimmed Glasses. Sophia and her fellow P.O.Weirdos (total population: 97) have been held long enough to know several presidents—none of them sympathetic enough to their plight to grant them release until President Martinez. Their Ice Station Alcatraz nestled into the craggy recesses of Mt. Inostranka in Alaska includes “research labs”; what do you think they’ve been allowed to work on during their captivity? A little over a year earlier, a long-on-the-run escaped detainee named William was found in Los Angeles and brought back to the facility, but was willing to cough up a Big Secret to get back his freedom: Intel about “the event.” What is “the event”? Dunno—but Sophia and CIA Agent Simon Lee, who serves as both Sophia’s jailer and sympathetic conduit to the outside world, both agreed it would be bad for this Big Secret to spill. Sophia indicated The Detainees have “people” living in the outside world. She worried that they may no longer believe in their mission, whatever that may be. When the airplane disappeared via Deus ex vortex just as it was about the slam into the president’s hotel, Sophia said: “They saved us.” Who are “our people”? Who are “they”? Are “our people” and “they” the same? And are “our people” and “they” connected to the hit squad that raided the Buchanan house? Sophia Maguire: Questions Incarnate. Great to see Laura Innes in action again. You kept looking for her Kerry Weaver cane, didn’t you?

The floor is now yours. What did you make of The Event? Did you like it? Do you trust it? Do you think it has a chance at growing into a saga as riveting and consuming as other shows of its kind? And yes: What do you think “The Event” will be?

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