Season 1, Episode 1
Date of airing: June 7, 2010 (NBC)
Nielsen ratings information: 4.38 million viewers, 3.0/5 in Households, 1.4/4 with Adults 18-49, 1.8/5 with Adults 25-54
Everyone was interested in the show before and when it premiered, because we all hoped it would become the new LOST. The island survival science-fictioner had just ended its 6-year-run on ABC and the Peacock network was one of the first shows to follow up on that success with their own show that would hopefully emulate all the best parts about the Carlson Cuse/Damon Lindelof-run television drama. PERSONS UNKNOWN could have been the breakout hit NBC wanted it to be, but two things made it an immediate problems with the viewers who wanted to find and like the show: It premiered during the summer months, when no one was interested in a highly serialized drama with a heavy mythology just yet, and the premiere episode happened to take the worst parts of LOST and utterly forget what made such a great show out of the survival drama during its first (two) season(s). When character drama made a hit television show out of LOST, the lost character drama of PERSONS UNKNOWN make it a forgettable show, and all you will remember about it after the first 42 minutes is how creepy the atmosphere is and how the producers decided to sometimes depict the happenings in this deserted small town through the eyes of the security cameras, which after this episode are the villains of the show.
PERSONS UNKNOWN has the most simplest of premises: Get a few strangers from all over the country and all around the walks of life involuntarily together into one room (or one hotel building, or one tiny town) and let them figure out how they got there, where they are, who they are, and whether or not one of them has something to do with why they are here. It is an easy mystery thriller premise to fill a movie script with, begging the question why two-time “Mission: Impossible” director Christopher McQuarry decided to make a television show out of it. Maybe the story was developed into a feature first, but NBC was asking for a summer show, or McQuarry saw potential with the characters and put ten, eleven more hours into the story for a summer run, in the hopes to keep the LOST audience engaged throughout the warmer months of the year. After one episode we can learn the lesson that a simple premise like the one establish cannot easily be turned into a television show when you decide not to give a damn about the characters. I basically remember just two of the characters’ names, and Janet’s back story seems easier to grasp, as she was the character who opened this television show with a scene in San Francisco, and who repeatedly told the audience she needs to get back home to her daughter, or else… She is definitely like Michael from LOST, although she is being hindered from even trying to search for her daughter.
So what would be the reason for the viewer to turn into the next episode? In all honesty, this episode did not deliver a lot of them. If you found the creepy atmosphere to your liking, you might see in PERSONS UNKNOWN something of a soft horror production, but that atmosphere got its knees capped when Chinese cooks and a night manager at the hotel showed up to add to the extra small count of characters in the mystery town of loneliness. In addition, the episode found a way to kill the flow of the story by cutting back to San Francisco, introduce a journalist and have him start investigating the disappearance of a mother whom everyone believes will be found in a bag in the water soon. Maybe the viewers liked one or the other of the cast members, and in my case it was Jason Wiles, whom I knew from THIRD WATCH, which was still a show in my mind back in 2010, even though not more than three seasons aired on German television and five years were lying between the finale of the paramedic cop drama and this episode. Maybe the finale of the episode convinced you to remember tuning back into the show next week — if and when Janet chooses to follow her fortune and kill her way out of this nightmare, what will happen then? But did we really believe that Janet, arguably the central character of PERSONS UNKNOWN, would immediately turn into the villain by murdering someone?
Not even I believed that when I watched the show as it aired, giving it up after a handful of episodes as I became bored and more fascinated with other things back in 2010. And besides that, the episode had nothing else to offer in any of the other regards. There was not even a slight hint about who the villain of the story is (the LOST pilot at least established there was a people-eating monster in the jungle), and for some weird reason the characters did not develop paranoia over the fact that one of them may be “one of them” and has answers as to why they are all in this mess. If I were to suspect that one of the people in my life is planning to do me harm, I would do everything to figure out who that person is, including staying away from most of the people in my life. But on PERSONS UNKNOWN, they all stick together, have a nice Chinese meal and they do not go at each other’s throats for acting weird and irrationally. But I guess that is what McQuarry wanted with the show: Grow an ounce of paranoia, so that the viewers may be able to ask themselves who the bad guys are. But turning this show into a mystery for the viewers instead of the characters is the wrong way to attack the development of a television show. The characters should still remain front and center, and the audience should be able to connect with the characters. Creating a story just so the minds of the audience can be messed with is not a story worth checking out over a couple of months. PERSONS UNKNOWN may be a prime example of that, and I am here to find out by watching the entire show, which is something I did not do in 2010.