"Zero Hour" stars Anthony Edwards, right, Scott Michael Foster,… (Philippe Bosse, ABC )
From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Dan Brown, when it comes to driving narrative, it's hard to beat a good heroic quest. Whether it's the Holy Grail, the one ring, the ark of the covenant or Moby-Dick, draw up a map, create a barely attainable, possibly mystical item to find and/or destroy and you've immediately got the attention of millions.
Unfortunately, even for those of us who prefer our conspiracies biblical and our talismans magical, ABC's "Zero Hour," while initially tantalizing (priests, Nazis, Anthony Edwards, an unholy birth, a secret map — I'm in! I'm in!), is more than a little disappointing (flat-footed dialogue, absurd plot machinations, cardboard main characters, ludicrous historical leaps — I'm out! I'm out!). The series premieres Thursday.
So chockablock with genre signifiers — ancient symbols, unworldly villain, exotic locales, damsel in distress — that one can almost imagine creator Paul Scheuring ("Prison Break") hunched between stacks of Brown paperbacks and the wiki page for "quest," "Zero Hour" does not come close to clearing the fairly low bar of its own genre.
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J.R.R. Tolkien aside, no one expects a story that involves a secret order of priests and a mysterious device that will save the world to come encased in great literary drama — "National Treasure" is more the model here — but it would help if the writing didn't actually get in the way of the story.
Which, alas, it too often does.
"Zero Hour" opens, promisingly enough, in Nazi Germany with a crazy clock in a crazy church and a prologue about the beginning and end of time. But from the moment anyone opens his mouth — "The Nazis have a made a breakthrough," "Impossible," "The prophesies are true; the end times are here" — the show surrenders to its own lowest common denominator, galloping through historical back story with all the nuance of a History docudrama, before History's docudramas got good.
The Nazis, in case you had forgotten, were really, really bad dudes. Priests, on the other hand, get the first good press they've had in years.
Things do not improve in present day New York (i.e. Montreal), where Edwards' Hank Galliston is playing lovey dovey with his wife, Laila (Jacinda Barrett). He is the editor of Modern Skeptic magazine, she repairs and sells old clocks. It's not surprising, then, that, while wandering through a flea market, she is mysteriously drawn (cue irritating soundtrack) to none other than one of the crazy clocks we saw in the opening moments. So while, back at his oddly spacious office, Hank argues werewolves and editorial integrity with his saucy young reporters, Laila finds herself abducted from her shop.
Fortunately, she left the crazy clock in her apartment, where Hank quickly takes it apart and discovers its secret, which I will not reveal, partly in respect for spoiler law, but mostly because it is so predictable that it would just be depressing to write about. One brilliant priest and an attractive FBI agent (Carmen Ejogo) later, Hank and Co. find themselves launched on a quest to find Laila that will undoubtedly span the globe, rewrite history and change the nature of the world as we know it.
If only they weren't all forced to say things just like that, we might be able to sit back and enjoy Edwards' return to television, filing away the fun bits of trivia that pass for scholarship in tales such as this. But they are, so we can't.
A terrific pilot does not guarantee a terrific television show and there is a corollary to that — sometimes a bad pilot can morph into a good show. "Zero Hour" has decent enough bones, with the added benefits of a built-in "Da Vinci Code" fan base and a likable star.
Once the quest gets going, things seemed to grow a bit less clunky, or perhaps it was just a case of "resistance is futile." Either way, it's difficult not to hope "Zero Hour" gets better. And miracles do happen, especially here, at the end of days.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for violence)