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'The Event' recap: De plane, boss! De plane!

September 20, 2010 | 10:00 pm

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"The Event" is exciting, no doubt. It's like an hour consisting entirely of "Lost" cliffhangers. You know the ones. The camera would zoom in on Matthew Fox looking grim, and then someone would say, "The Island is a giant bomb!" or something, and the music would go, "WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH," and everybody would FREAK OUT. Until next week, when they found out that the Island wasn't a giant bomb.

The thing about "Lost" cliffhangers, though, is that they kept the audience tuned in and mostly not questioning the narrative. They also made everything seem like it was more exciting than it actually was, so when the show headed in for a ruminative, character-heavy final season, many fans felt like they'd bought into a sham. The answers many wanted weren't there, and the show just wasn't as exciting as it had been. The thrill was gone.

So when I say that "The Event" is made up entirely of "Lost" cliffhangers, I mean it as both a compliment and a criticism. Everything in the pilot is propulsive, leading up to a massively entertaining final sequence in which a fairly standard conspiracy thriller takes an abrupt left turn into science fiction. But it also means that everything that seems exciting is almost immediately undercut, that the show is constantly inverting and twisting itself to make things seem crazier than they actually are. Sean Walker (an enjoyable Jason Ritter) is our lead. No, he's a terrorist! No, he's actually a good guy! No, he's sort of a bad guy! No, he's just a man who's gotten in over his head because the love of his life disappeared! "The Event" sets an almost impossible task for itself in an episode with this many reversals: It's going to have to keep this pace up for years to come. And that's all but impossible.

But let's start with the good stuff first. I'm a big fan of that final sequence. We've gotten the pieces of it beforehand, with Sean trying to break into a plane's cockpit, his coulda-been father-in-law Michael (Scott Patterson) piloting the plane as it nose-dives toward the ground. And what's his target? President Elias Martinez (Blair Underwood), who's enjoying a party in the Florida sun until a JET STARTS DIVING FROM THE SKY. The other guy attached to all of this, Simon Lee (Ian Anthony Dale), is speeding toward the site of the soon-to-be crash, trying to figure out a way to stop what's happening. The sequence is peppered throughout the hour, and then at the end, it plays out in all of its agonizing glory. Fighter jets are on their way to shoot down the plane until they can't, the president's about to race from the party until it's too late, and the ground rumbles and shakes with the sound of the approaching plane.

Objectively, anyone who's ever watched television has to know that the series isn't going to kill off so many of its regular characters in the pilot (also in danger is Laura Innes' Sophia), but the fun of something like this is figuring out just how the series is going to get everybody out of the pickle they're in. And it really seems like "The Event" has no idea. The plane is getting closer and closer, and there's no way Michael can stop its descent. And then a rip in space-time itself opens up and swallows the plane whole. Where does it go? Nobody has any idea, though Sophia says that "they" saved everybody. Who are "they"? Well, that will take a whole series to figure out. How did all of this happen? "The Event" hopes this is a big enough question to keep you coming back for more.

And here's the thing: Even if I weren't covering this show for Show Tracker, I would be coming back next week, even though I thought the pilot had a lot of significant problems. That final sequence is good enough to make me want to see if there's an answer to the question at its center, even though I kind of know the answer to that question is going to be disappointing. There are only so many answers to any of the questions raised by the final scene, and it's hard to imagine the show coming up with something so out of left field that the audience won't already have speculated about it. To me, it's pretty much down to aliens, time travelers or beings from another universe or dimension. On the other hand, bland answers are fine if we're engaged with the characters, and that's where "The Event" completely falls apart.

There is absolutely nothing at the center of this pilot. It's an elaborate shell game designed to keep throwing exciting moments at the audience so the audience never slows down to think about how little is actually happening. One of my least favorite devices in TV storytelling is when an episode opens with a big, exciting moment, then pulls up text reading "seven days earlier" or something. Usually after this, we spend the entirety (or at least half) of the episode getting back to the exciting moment. It's a cheap way to goose the audience, especially if the producers fear the normal build of a storyline will cause people to tune out. 

But "The Event" is composed entirely of these scenes. There's one every act! There's an overarching one that teases the near-crash at the very beginning of the episode, and then there are flashbacks to minutes earlier, days earlier and even a year earlier. There are visits to secretive bases in Alaska. There are mysterious couples encountered on a tropical vacation. There's a girlfriend who has disappeared who drives both Sean and Michael to do some despicable things (presumably). But there's almost no explanation of who these people are as anything but chess pieces the show keeps shuffling around. They even fall almost exactly into the sorts of roles that pop up on shows like this. There's the Regular Guy In Over His Head (Sean), the Father Who Sacrifices Everything for His Baby Girl (Michael), the Agent Who's Doing What He Can to Stop Calamity (Simon), the Woman Who Knows More Than She's Telling (Sophia) and the President. Not to mention such enjoyable walking plot devices as the aforementioned Mysterious Couple and Disappearing Girlfriend.

These aren't people. They're not even types. (At least the "Lost" and "24" pilots had very broadly defined character types.) They're plot functions. They're simply there to get jerked around by the plot, and when the plot does this much jerking, it's hard to care about anything just because the series leaves us nothing to care about but forward momentum. That's fun for now, but at some point, any show will run out of stuff to keep throwing at the audience and doors to pop out from behind, screaming "Boo!" Even if you look at this episode on a story level, it doesn't make a lot of sense. It's a lot of opening sentences to stories, with absolutely nothing in the way of a middle or conclusion to any of them. "Lost" and "24" figured out ways to make each episode an episode. "The Event," in its pilot, at least, is a guy starting a bunch of stories, then continually interrupting himself.

But, OK, I'm on board, thanks to that last sequence. I just hope that the show isn't banking everything on a really cool reveal, because really cool reveals are fewer and farther between nowadays. Let's hope this show has some cool character work up its sleeve to go along with the disappearing airplane.

-- Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: What is the event? Sean (Jason Ritter) certainly has no idea. Credit: NBC

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