P.U. is an Unfortunate Set of Initials

Thankfully, it is not an apt descriptor. Persons Unknown, it turns out, is awesome.

For those of you who don’t know what it is about (and by that I actually mean “those of you who have not seen it yet” because honestly I don’t think anyone is quite sure what it’s about yet), Persons Unknown chronicles the experiences of a group of strangers who get kidnapped and wake up in a hotel in a deserted but fully functional town in the middle of nowhere. They keep trying to escape; weird stuff keeps happening.

Yes, yes. It does sound rather like it’s trying to be the new Lost, doesn’t it?

That was certainly my feeling for the first episode or two. I even had this whole chart worked out showing which characters from Persons Unknown corresponded to which characters from Lost – Janet = Kate/Claire, Joe = Jack*, Tori = Shannon and so on.

I was being very unfair, it turns out.

It is not true that Persons Unknown is a poor knock-off of Lost; it is too good to be just that. Bu t is definitely true that Persons Unknown comes from the same family line of shows as Lost, an ancestry with roots in The X-Files and even The Twilight Zone. This means that Persons Unknown has quite the legacy to uphold. And I think it could be capable of doing so, given half a chance.

As I’ve said, it’s tough to say exactly what sort of show Persons Unknown is or what it is about because it is just so mysterious. And very well done. The art of suspense has been somewhat lost since the dawn of high-quality CGI. Now that special effects are in their hey-day, show (and movie) producers have gotten lazy. They pile on the guts and gore and highly realistic computer images and decide that is enough to scare people. It is not. Name one show that started in the last decade that has been halfway as scary as some of those earlier, exceptionally creepy episodes of The X-Files. That show was done entirely via camera work and atmosphere, and Persons Unknown has taken a page out of its book.

Perhaps it’s because of a low budget, but the creep-factor of Persons Unknown is due almost entirely to the excellently mood-setting score (music is almost always in the background and so subtly effective you almost don’t notice) and the camera work/film editing. Everything is tinted in slightly corpse-like colors. And the observational cameras are about the scariest thing ever, especially since they are everywhere. The set is creepy too, but only because it is empty and any empty town is automatically really creepy – otherwise, it is pretty unremarkable (actually, it looks a lot like the town from Gilmore Girls). Long story short, Persons Unknown has suspense down to an art and that is probably my absolute favorite thing about it. I like it when things scare me to death without blood, guts, and bad masks jumping out of nowhere.

Another element of Persons Unknown that I’m greatly enjoying is the cast of characters. It took me awhile to warm up to them – again, the initial Lost similarities – but now that they’ve been more fully established, I’m starting to really appreciate them. Female characters usually get the short end of the interesting-and-creative stick. I usually hate the lead female protagonist with a burning passion. But I’m actually sort of fond of Janet (Daisy Betts), because she’s not just the whiny mother type – she’s kind of a bad ass. The supporting females, Tori (Kate Lang Johnson) and Moira (Tina Holmes) are the typical mix of occasionally well-performed and written but mostly unwritten. Kat (Lola Glaudini),is delightfully bitchy and gets the best one-liners in the show** Janet’s mother (Lee Purcell) is approximately the most terrifying woman ever. And new addition Erica, is so terrifyingly well-performed I’ve had to re-evaluate my previously low opinion of Kandyse McClure.

The male characters are intriguing enough, I suppose. There was a definite casting-fail in terms of the two “sexy” males. Reporter Mark Renbe (Gerald Kyd) is totally unattractive and only got somewhat interesting three episodes in when we found out he was Such A Terrible Person. As for the aforementioned Joe (Jason Wiles)…well, actually, he’s a lot more intriguing now that it’s been revealed that he is in on the conspiracy(?) behind the kidnap of these people. He has a personality now! He has the potential to become rather awesome. We’ll see if he lives up to it. For now though, my favorite male character is McNair (Chadwick Boseman) because he is a) the character with useful skills and b) the hot one. Close second: the Night Manager (Andy Greenfield), a hilarious cross between Norman Bates from Psycho and Kenneth Parcell of 30 Rock.

What makes Persons Unknown stand out from not only Lost but from every other show on air is the fact that it is completely batshit. It is totally weird and absolutely unpredictable. It is awesome. The lack of storyline is a little frustrating when I get a moment to think about it. But I get continually distracted by all the insanity. My theory is that the writers just have a hat filled with random ideas (“dig an escape tunnel” “build a signal fire” “drop gas masks out of the sky” “give Character A a gun and tell them to kill Character B” “reveal that Character X killed his wife” “reveal that Character Y died prior to appearing in town”) and they draw out three or four of those per episode. Some of these ideas are stupider than others. Some of them are rather ingenious. Either way, Persons Unknown is worth watching just to see what the hell happens.

Don’t misunderstand, there is a plot to Persons Unknown. We don’t know much about it – I’m not even sure why the show is called Persons Unknown. But the story seems to have something to do with psychological experimentation, a training program for…something, survival of the fittest, and some sort of parent-driven conspiracy. Now that Tom ( ) has been given a name and some screen time, things seem to be progressing.

The ratings for Persons Unknown have been far from outstanding. Bad enough, in fact, that the show has now been moved to Saturdays at 8pm. But, supposedly it is intended as a 13-episode miniseries, so it just might make it all the way through and answer all the looming questions. In any case it’ll be released on DVD. Which is good. Because I want to see it all.

If you haven’t been watching Persons Unknown, I definitely suggest you start. Most of the episodes are still on Hulu (and I’m sure you can find the ones that aren’t without too much trouble). It is definitely worth your time if you’ve got any interest in a show with a suspense/conspiracy/mystery/possibly sci-fi edge.

*The Joe/Jack comparison was my favorite. I even wrote it out. And while I don’t believe it is true anymore (see my thoughts on Joe above), I do believe it is hilarious. So, here is that commentary for y’all to enjoy:

Joe. He’s all “My Name Is One Syllable Starting With J. I’m Handsome And Have Philosophical Ideas And Like To Be The Guy Everyone Turns To. I’m In A Potentially Life-Or-Death Situation And Should Probably Be Worried About All The Weird Shit Going Down Around Here But I’m Busy Having Awkward Fuzzy Feelings About The Lead Female, Whose Name Has The Prominent T And A Her Figure Lacks, And Am Destined To Walk Around With An Enormous Boner For Her For The Rest Of The Series.”
…this sounds awfully familiar. Why is that? Hmm…OH YEAH. That’s because up until a month ago his name was Jack (last name Shepard) and he was wordlessly appointed leader of a band of people stranded on a mysterious Island where weird shit happened all the time. Of course, back then he was actually definitely attractive instead of just vaguely so and he was a doctor and he had real leadership skills and he didn’t turn to anyone else (like the guy with military training who is much better suited for a leadership position but can’t have it because he is too young and too not white) for advice. BUT HEY. Had to make SOME changes. Wouldn’t want this show to be a COMPLETE copy of Lost or anything.

** Some of my favorite Kat quotes to date:

“Leave the legitimate stories to the real journalists.” (BUUUURN.)
“You give me my transvestite first, then you can have your missing mom.”
“Rich bitch a which. That’s what I call a headline.”
“We’re just friends with benefits. You’re hardly a benefit.”
“None of that means dick if you don’t face up to the real issue, Mark.”

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  • forensicfanatic  On July 12, 2010 at 10:37 AM

    I totally agree with you about Joe. At first, I thought he was kind of boring considering he’s supposed to be one of the main male characters on the show. Since the reveal of his involvement, I love him so much more. Since the reveal, the show has taken on a whole new level and I can’t wait to see how it ends.

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