'The Event' Review: Sets Record — First Series to Jump the Shark in First Episode

NBC’s The Event has probably been one of the most widely anticipated new series of the current season. The network ran countless promotional spots intended to entice viewers to wonder precisely what the title occurrence might be, and what it might mean.

Of course, big hype means big expectations, and it’s an open question whether the show can live up to them. The ratings last night were good but not as high as NBC might have hoped, with the show finishing third in its time slot.

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According to TV by the Numbers:

It was NBC’s best non-olympic performance in the time slot since February 2, 2009 and it rose from a 3.5 rating with adults 18-49 in the first half hour to a 3.9 in the second half hour.

But, OK, you may be wondering, should I watch it? Will it be worth my time?

Short answer: probably not, at least if the pilot episode is any indication.

One distinctive element of The Event is the show’s narrative structure: the story jumps back and forth in time and from one place to another. I didn’t find that to be a problem, but others might not find that aspect of The Event particularly enjoyable.

The other evident thing about the pilot episode is the lack of a clear central character. Just as the story jumps about in time and place, it also jumps from one central character to another. That is a more important concern, I think.

Everything seems intended to make the viewer wonder what the event of the show’s title will be. [Note: plenty of plot spoilers ahead.] Early on, a man named Simon, whom we are to figure is a police or security officer of some sort, says, “He’s going to tell them about The Event,” regarding a man on a jetliner who appears at the time to be a potential terrorist. One presumes that he is referring to the actual event, and not the show itself, though given all the promo spots NBC has run for it in recent weeks, one would be excused for thinking otherwise. As the plane is rushing along the runway preparatory to takeoff, Simon races his SUV alongside in an effort to get it to stop, but he fails. Realism wins this round.

Soon thereafter we find that the President of the United States plans to close down a government detainment facility, even though all of his national security advisors counsel against it. We are then thrust thirteen months into the past, when the President finds out that the CIA has been running a secret facility of some sort in a remote area of Alaska. Presumably, this is the one the President was planning to close down earlier–er, later, um, . . . in the earlier scene set later in the fictional timeline.

The Prez and his advisers then all hash out some arguments over whether terrorism justifies governments’ abrogation of people’s rights. And as appears to be required in this sort of show, one of his advisers makes a portentous statement that proves he’s on the Dark Side: “We sacrifice the rights of the few for the safety of the many all the time.”

After that bombshell, we find ourselves on a cruise ship in which a young man is thrust into an oft-used type of nightmare plot in suspense stories: his girlfriend disappears, the cruise ship cabin in which they were staying is now occupied by another couple, and no records of either him or his fiancé are to be found. (This has been done well many times, and done poorly many, many more. This one is not bad, but it’s frustratingly unoriginal.) From earlier scenes, we know that this poor chap is going to end up on a jetliner trying to talk his girlfriend’s father out of crashing the plane into the President’s vacation compound in a bizarre assassination attempt. Now that’s what I call a lousy day.

It’s all a build-up to this spectacular attempt on the President’s life. This must be The Event.

So, you may wonder, how does that go? Pretty tense, right? Well, yes and no. Given that the President and his family are nearly complete ciphers to the viewer, it’s difficult to get worked up about the potential assassination, except insofar as one is devoted to John Donne‘s attitude that “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” The problem here is that the President and First Lady aren’t given enough distinctive character traits–any, really–to enable us to see them as fully human. They’re just placeholders.

Anyway, the assassination attempt is averted–by a literal miracle: the jetliner disappears into some sort of hole in the space-time continuum–along with any interest I had in the story until this point.

If the producers of The Event managed to prove anything, it’s that it’s possible for a TV series to jump the shark in its very first episode.

Anyway, back to the story. “They saved us,” a woman tells the President, referring to the miracle disappearance of the jetliner. Naturally, he asks her whom she means, and just as naturally the episode ends before she says anything useful.

If all this sounds a bit confusing, it really isn’t. Despite the jumping around in time and space, the story is reasonably coherent and in fact rather simple. And that seems to me to be a problem with the pilot episode of The Event: it’s too much of a rehash of suspense clichés without any particularly interesting characters or settings, plus a spectacular supernatural event as in Lost and last year’s FlashForward. If the viewer does not identify strongly with the characters, the emotional effect of any dangers they face is greatly diminished. That’s something one should learn on the first day of Suspense 101.

The problem with The Event is the failure to convey a real sense of danger with which the audience can actually identify. The characters are so vague and the situations so bizarre and overblown that it makes the viewer a passive bystander rather than feeling like an active participant.

The people who made the show undoubtedly had their hearts in the right place. We should all be against assassinations and the incarceration of innocent people. But without compelling characters and situations to drive the story along, no event, however spectacular, can really keep our interest. And unless the upcoming episodes quickly rectify those faults, The Event appears likely to be a short-term thing.

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