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'The Event' recap: What is 'the event'? Please answer this time

March 15, 2011 |  8:30 am

Well, “Event” fans -- you punishingly small number, you -- the numbers from the show’s long-awaited return are in, and they’re … not good.

The show’s midseason premiere last week attracted a ridiculously small number of viewers, indicating that the huge audience that sampled the premiere in September fell off through the fall, then lost interest when the show was gone for several months.

The tack fans usually take in situations like this is to blame the network for letting the show be gone so long. And, yeah, NBC certainly didn’t help by taking the show off the air for all of December, January, and February.

But we’ve also got to face facts. This was a show that had every advantage in the world -- great promotion, great ratings for the premiere, a stellar cast, an intriguing premise -- and it squandered every single one of them.

The show has even apparently given up the ghost on its bizarre, goofy cliffhangers. Where once we had old ladies in place of little girls and Hal Holbrook’s morphing face, Monday night we got what felt like a solid minute of Blair Underwood staring at the camera while menacing music played.

Here’s the thing: “The Event” is a mystery show, like, say, “Twin Peaks” or “Lost,” where part of the fun is getting lost in the wheels within wheels that make up the show’s universe. But I’ve suddenly realized that I have no idea what the mystery we in the audience are supposed to be trying to solve is.

Is there a corner of the Internet where “Event” fans try to piece together all of the show’s convoluted backstory and various teases? Because it feels like the show is simultaneously too direct and not direct enough, giving straightforward answers to most questions then avoiding anything of the sort on others.

Monday night, for instance, the show told us point blank that Thomas caused the Chernobyl disaster to obtain uranium rods, and he wants to try the same in San Diego, possibly causing a nuclear meltdown in that fine city (weirdly timely). Why? Because he wants to bring a number of his people to earth for some reason, which will cause massive devastation to those of us already living here. 

But what is the central mystery of the show? The central mystery of the pilot was a pretty good one: What happened to that confounded airplane? Even if the rest of the pilot struck you as a mess, it was pretty hard to resist the allure of finding out the answer to that question (though millions tuned out between weeks 1 and 2, so maybe there are fewer people who felt this way than I thought). But the show immediately answered that question, then immediately answered the other major question about the identities of Sophia and her people.

Since then, there’s been virtually nothing in the way of mysteriousness to get worked up about. Oh, sure, we have experiments on little girls and Holbrook’s Mousetrap game of doom, but those are garden-variety mystery-show plot devices. The human experimentation was picked up on loan from “The X-Files,” and Holbrook’s game might as well have come from the same store as the giant wall of plot devices and doom on last season’s similarly convoluted (and similarly bad) “FlashForward.”

Well, fans will say, what is "the event" in "The Event"? This has never, ever, ever been worked into the story of the show. It’s a mystery based on an ad campaign that ran for ages last summer, but it’s a mystery that hasn’t worked itself into the show. The closest thing I can think of was “the incident” on “Lost,” and by the time we finally got to see “the incident,” the show had prepped us for seasons about the importance of the event.

When “the incident” rolled around, in all its metal-warping glory, viewers were more than primed to see it play out. By making “What is the event?” the central question of this series, the show’s producers have more or less turned that thing where you see a movie or read a book with a weird title and spend most of the running time wondering what the title could mean before finally figuring it out with 10 minutes to go into a television series.

But it doesn’t really work on TV because TV requires weekly evolution. The mysteries, like the characters and plot development, are caught on hamster wheels on “The Event.”

All of this might be vaguely bearable if the characters were at all interesting. Instead, they’re a bunch of unmotivated lumps. I spelled out above just why Thomas felt the need to potentially turn San Diego into a radioactive wasteland like Pripyat (and, really, if you spent the entire hour this was on browsing photo galleries of that abandoned city, you made a wise choice in avoiding this), but only in plot terms. Why? He’s tired of the way his people were treated by the government and tired of his mother’s rule and … a whole host of things that the show tells us, rather than bothering to show us.

Clifton Collins Jr. is trying his best, but Thomas is a blank at this point, a character driven by impulses he keeps telling us he’s driven by, even though most of his actions indicate that he’d really rather chill with his lady friend and order a pizza. (Collins, an actor who doesn’t exactly exude mysterious menace here, seems an odd choice for this part, despite his obvious acting chops.)

The problem always comes back to stakes. There’s a massive explosion and gunbattle toward the end of the episode, but we have no clue what the stakes are if either side loses, beyond the vague notion that something bad will happen vis a vis the arrival of Thomas’ people if he gets the nuclear material. There are scenes where Leila tries to figure out who or what she is, but we have no idea how her life would be altered by learning of her part-alien heritage beyond the obvious. (This is not helped by Sarah Roemer’s tendency to stare blankly into the middle distance at all times.)

Sean beats up a guy in a bar. Vicky beats up a guy outside a grocery store (that seemed to exclusively feature Tide and a bunch of products that were turned away from the camera, in some of the weirdest product placement ever). Why? Because they’re suffering and stuff.

“The Event” hasn’t bothered to make what these characters feel real, and it hasn’t bothered to convince us that any of these people care about what they’re doing or that they’d have a reason to care. And when the fictional people in your show don’t really seem to give a darn about what’s going on it’s hard to make the audience come around, too. I’m trying to like “The Event.” But I’m drowning out here, and the show is sitting on the bank, rope nearby, endlessly asking me to pick a card, any card.


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

Photo: Some vehicles blow up in this episode of "The Event." Now you don't have to watch it. Credit: NBC