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Television review: 'Persons Unknown'

The new NBC series' efforts to mix elements of 'Lost,' 'The Prisoner' and the 'Saw' franchise into a satisfyingly mysterious whole is thrown off by stilted writing and mediocre acting.

June 07, 2010|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • PARTY GIRL: Kate Lang Johnson as Tori.
PARTY GIRL: Kate Lang Johnson as Tori. (NBC )

Take "Lost," mash it up with "The Prisoner," throw in a little "Saw," over-season with badly written and poorly delivered dialogue, glaze with horror-film lighting, dream-scene camerawork and elevators like you haven't seen since "The Shining," and you've got "Persons Unknown," the new mystery- drama premiering on NBC Monday night.

Seven strangers wake up to find themselves in a creepy hotel in the middle of an otherwise empty Rockwellian town. They have no idea why anyone would want to kidnap them, mainly because they are so very uninteresting. There's Janet (Daisy Betts), a perky young mother dragged from a playground moments after talking to a creepy guy to whom she owes money. (It's a clever conceit — a mother snatched from a playground — or would be if it didn't involve a 5-year-old being left unattended.) When Janet awakes in her hotel room she is rescued from hysteria and her locked door by a guy named Joe (Jason Wiles) and the two manage to assemble the various castaways, which conveniently include a soldier (Chadwick Boseman), a party girl (Kate Lang Johnson) and an angry man with a gun (Sean O'Bryan). They all eye one another suspiciously and say things such as "How do I know you're not one of them?" until you may be forced to turn the sound off, which frankly does not hinder one's understanding of events as much as it should.

Because we already know why they have been kidnapped — they are being watched by the beings referenced in the title. And it's not just the captives under surveillance, but also those they left behind, including Janet's young daughter and her disturbing mother, who we meet when she is being interviewed by Gerald Kyd's Intrepid Reporter. (We know he is intrepid because he does not shave and works for a publication where editors say things like "When I say a headline, I mean a headline" — oops, there goes the sound again.) So someone out there is working his way in to Janet and Co. even as they are trying to work their way out.

It won't be easy, of course. For one thing, they all have remote-controlled pharmaceutical implants that will dope them up to the point of oblivion should they step over some undefined boundary. (Removing these little gadgets is instantly deemed impossible by Moira (Tina Holmes), who says, "They seem to be in there pretty deep," even though everyone can see them bulging through their skin.)

It would help if "Persons Unknown," which was created by Christopher McQuarrie (who won an Oscar for writing "The Usual Suspects"), was not premiering so fast on the heels of the "Lost" finale; it would help if the dialogue wasn't so clunky or if the actors didn't utter it as if they were auditioning for their local production of "And Then There Were None"; and it would certainly help if the premiere roused any concern at all about the characters' collective fate. But it is, they do and it doesn't, so the only thing "persons unknown" may wind up referring to is the audience.

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