Review: NBC’s The Event
September 19th, 2010
What is the function of mystery?
You might feel that this is a particularly silly question, but I think that television producers are beginning to misinterpret just what makes mysteries a key component of television drama. Yes, the most basic definition of mystery is uncertainty, so there is a certain value to keeping your audience guessing throughout your narrative. However, mystery is about more than guesswork and confusion; it is about suspenseful situations, and about the way each individual character responds to their uncertainty. In other words, a good mystery isn’t an elaborate conspiracy unfolding in fractured narratives designed to obscure the truth; rather, a good mystery is one which the viewer experiences as opposed to one which has been explicitly created for their consumption, one where the characters and the audience share the same feelings of suspense or uncertainty as the series continues.
This is all a fancy way of saying that NBC’s The Event – which debuts at 9/8c on Monday, September 20th – is a show which tries so hard to be mysterious that it loses track of basic principles of storytelling: with a chronology designed to confuse, and with characterization that ranges from vague to non-existent, there is nothing for the viewer to latch onto but the elephant-sized mystery in the room. And yet by organizing the pilot as a series of neon signs with flashing arrows pointing towards the mystery, the manipulations necessary to create said mystery become readily apparent, and render The Event an exercise of zeitgeist-chasing self-indulgence.
On the plus side, The Event is well cast: Laura Innes, Blair Underwood, Jason Ritter and Zjelko Ivanek are all performers who I’ve enjoyed in other projects, and all do an admirable job of trying to bring life to characters who are severely underwritten. And while I have some issues with the structure of the pilot, which I’ll get to in a moment, Jeffrey Reiner (Friday Night Lights) put together a visually interesting hour of television that very clearly cost a great deal of money. It’s all an effort to sell audiences on the show: with tantalizing glimpses of the mystery, a number of recognizable faces in the cast, and an attractively shot pilot, The Event becomes a “must-see” show by default.
And yet we expect this from promotional efforts, don’t we? We know that they are going to sell us the show they want The Event to be rather than the show it actually is: considering the success of Lost and other shows which were built on mystery, the show was going to be boiled down to those qualities in promotional efforts. However, where The Event loses me is that the pilot itself feels like an advertising pitch, every moment calculated to remind the audience that this is a mystery in order to get them “hooked” on discovering what the Event really is. The number of “X days Earlier/Later” chyrons in the pilot may make it an ideal drinking game, but outside of a few interesting editing decisions the switches between time periods only serve to disorient rather than interest the viewer. While the flashbacks could serve a function helping us fill out each character’s back story, they instead serve as a pivot for the narrative trickery: we learn things not because we need to learn things, but because learning things allows the writers to force us to unlearn things.
The result is a pilot that doesn’t actually tell us anything about its characters or its narrative. Instead of giving Blair Underwood’s President Martinez a character of his own, they create a Guantanamo Bay allegory to connect him with Obama; instead of allowing Jason Ritter and Sarah Roemer’s young couple to form their own relationship, the series leans heavily on romantic clichés in order to speed up the exposition process. When we finally get to the “earth-shattering” conclusion (that’s a turn of phrase, not a spoiler that the Event is an earthquake), it doesn’t actually tell us anything about what we just saw: instead of leaving clues for us to piece together, it introduces something that is wholly unpredictable.
Now, some may consider this an asset: some may be so starved for mystery that they’re willing to be led on, enjoying the fact that the pilot so often throws the narrative over to the audience for their perusal. However, even if you enjoy this sort of interaction, The Event disappoints in that it never allows the audience to piece something together: none of the mysteries are capable of being predicted, obscure to the point that all the audience can do is willfully follow the narrative bouncing ball. It holds the audience at arm’s length, too busy playing around with its chronology to realize that in doing so it becomes a television series about an event rather than an event in and of itself. We never get to put ourselves in the characters’ shoes because they never stop long enough for a scene to really make an impact, and as a result those who aren’t sucked into the mystery have nothing else to latch onto: there’s no time for anyone to put together a breakthrough performance, and no opportunity for one of the narrative threads to establish itself independent of the others, which means that if you’re not on board for the mystery there is nothing to see here.
I don’t think that The Event is a “terrible” show by any means: I like Jason Ritter quite a bit, and there are a number of scenarios surrounding his character (Sean Walker) which seem as if they could be compelling. However, they are compelling in the abstract rather than within the pilot itself, and I feel as if I shouldn’t have to imagine this becoming a more enjoyable series. I should be able to see something tangible in the pilot that will keep me watching, and the absence of clarity is not the same as mystery. While Lisa Simpson might argue that I should be listening to the notes that the Event isn’t playing, I’m capable of doing that without watching the show.
And The Event in my imagination might be a slightly less frustrating television experience than The Event in reality.
- I don’t know what’s more difficult: separating Scott Patterson from Luke Danes in my head, or picturing Patterson as Sarah Roemer’s father. I have no real explanation for the latter, it just really threw me for a loop for some reason.
- I just watched Disturbia on TNT recently, and at the time made a mental note about Roemer grabbing her first regular TV role here. She doesn’t particularly assert herself in the pilot, but the role is pretty similar to Disturbia in terms of focusing on eye candy.
- My big question for the future, and the reason I might tune in beyond the pilot, is whether they will stick with this sort of fractured narrative in all subsequent episodes. They spend enough time in each of the different time periods, with numerous secondary characters given a sense of importance within the narrative, that I presume we’re going to be flipping around, but I would imagine (and hope, for viewers’ sake) that there will be a bit more restraint in the future.