Like other failed shows and movies that drop ordinary characters into extraordinary situations, the problem with NBC’s Persons Unknown is not with the “extraordinary” part of the equation. That part is interesting enough: A half dozen strangers wake up in hotel rooms and find themselves trapped in an abandoned one-horse town that resembles the ghost town the Brady bunch stumbled upon in the Grand Canyon episode. The characters, including single mom Janet (Daisy Betts) and mysterious Joe (Jason Wiles), don’t know one another, plus they’ve all been implanted with some sort of monitoring device in the back of a thigh that doesn’t allow them to pass the perimeter of the village. The only other sign of life in the town is a mysterious Chinese restaurant that serves first-rate Kung Pao chicken and sinister fortune cookies. It’s hokey but nevertheless intriguing.
The real problem with the pilot is not with the situation, it’s with the people placed in it. Not only are none of the seven characters particularly interesting, they simply fail to react realistically to their bizarre circumstances. Why aren’t they panicking more? Why aren’t they comparing stories to try and come up with a common thread? Why are they eating the Chinese food? Half of the fun of a show like Persons Unknown is watching the characters do what you would do to get out of the trap, and then fail. But the unlucky seven here simply don’t sell their predicament or come alive through their dialogue. It’s surprising since the creator of the show, and the writer of the pilot, is Christopher McQuarrie, most famous for having penned The Usual Suspects, a movie full of distinctive characters and crackerjack dialogue.
At the very end of the first episode, there’s a game-changing twist that implies that the captives might be forced to turn against one another. While not original (the Saw franchise comes to mind, as does Lost and Battle Royale), it’s the only interesting moment in the pilot and it opens the door to the possibility that as the show progresses, it might at least deliver some cheap thrills, even if it never becomes emotionally involving.
Another bright note: NBC, at least for now, is presenting Persons Unknown as a finite series, one that will end after 13 episodes. More shows, especially puzzle boxes like this, should have similarly limited running times. So while the show might not provide great characters, at least you’ll get an ending—whether you like it or not.