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'The Event' recap: What do you want?

November 15, 2010 | 10:48 pm

Vice president
In my continuing quest to figure out just what it is that doesn't work about "The Event," which has put together a couple of pretty fun scenes and at least one enjoyable episode but remains a disappointment, I've come up with a new theory: It's virtually impossible to boil down into one sentence what anyone on this show WANTS. Take a look at some of the other shows in the same basic genre as "The Event" (the "weird stuff happens" genre, for those of you playing along at home). On "The Prisoner," Number Six wants to escape. On "Twin Peaks," Dale Cooper wants to find Laura Palmer's killer. On "The X-Files," Mulder wants to find his sister (and to do so is trying to prove the existence of aliens). On "Lost," everybody wants to get off the Island. Say what you will about the relative quality of these series, but once they got away from their central missions, they became more and more unsatisfying for more and more people.

Here's an example: I'm a pretty big "Lost" apologist (no, go and read the stuff I wrote about the last season on this very site; I'll wait). But the final three seasons and particularly the very final season are controversial among fans. Some absolutely love them, while some don't like them. What's significant about these last three seasons (and, again, particularly the last season) is that there's not a very strong goal uniting the characters. Some of them want to get off the Island, some of them want to get back on it, and some of them don't seem to terribly care one way or another. By the final season, which largely turns into an elaborate game between two demigods, the idea of "escape" had mostly been lost, until it abruptly came back in the finale, where it couldn't help but feel just a bit unsatisfying. The central mission got lost, and the show suffered for many fans.

The most famous example of this, of course, is the fact that "Twin Peaks" solved who Laura's killer was in Season 2 and then had no clear direction. Again, I like a lot of those episodes, but if you want to say the show was aimless after that, I'm not going to fight you over it. On "The X-Files," the series' central story about the alien conspiracy lost much of its punch once it became less about Mulder's sister and more about proving the aliens were coming to take over or something. Take another famous influence on "The Event," "24." On "24," the best seasons usually featured a hard and fast goal for Jack Bauer: Stop the nuclear bomb. Save the senator from being assassinated. And so on. You can apply this to just about any show, though, as the idea that characters should want something, should desire something, should need something, is a fairly ironclad rule of drama. Once you take away that desire, well, the characters had better be good enough to sustain everything else (as I'd argue the characters on, say, "Lost" were). Without it, all you have is a void.

So what does anybody on "The Event" WANT? Near as I can tell, it mostly boils down to this: The president, for idealistic reasons, wants to expose the existence of seemingly extraterrestrial entities that crashed on the Earth in the 1940s. The EBEs have been held in a camp in Alaska since that time, and the president sees it as going against the central idea of the United States. Meanwhile, the aliens want to be free, all the better to do something we're still unclear on, while there's another shadowy faction that finally revealed that all it wants is to keep the aliens in the Alaskan facility because if they're let out, they'll do ... something bad. There's another faction of aliens that wants to do something or other, while there are a bunch of ordinary people caught up in the middle of this, including Sean Walker, who just wanted to rescue his girlfriend. Then he did, and now he wants to rescue her little sister, but he could care less about all of the above. Seriously, just stop telling him about it.

So how the heck do you boil that down to a sentence? "The Event" hopes that we'll boil it down to, "What's going on here?" but that's not a motivation for the characters. That's a motivation for US. This means that what the characters usually seem to want is to keep the plot moving forward, which makes them incredibly dull much of the time. Sometimes, the show will pull out a nice character backstory, like it did with Simon two episodes ago, but that backstory always hinges on something the character wants: Simon wants to stay with his girlfriend, even though he won't age and she will. Blake wants to stay with his wife, even though she's a Russian spy. Heck, even the one plot that had any immediacy in the show's early going was based on this dynamic: Sean wants to find his girlfriend. But now he has, and the show can't figure out how to incorporate him into the larger dynamic.

Also, if you look at that paragraph up above, you'll notice something else: There are a whole lot of "something"s in there. "The Event" is keeping its characters' motivations shadowy when that's precisely the thing we need to know about to keep us interested in the show. Tonight's episode revolved entirely around President Martinez's vice president, the man who apparently called in the hit on Martinez back in the pilot. There's at least one big problem with this: We don't even know the vice president. On the other hand, the show could patch that up with a really strong episode about why he did what he did, but the nature of the series requires that we can't know too much about that. So we get some boilerplate from Evil Hal Holbrook, and then, just when the veep's about to announce everything he knows to Martinez, he actually gets taken down by an exploding van before he can say anything. This is a plot device so hokey, you'd think shows would know to stay far, far away. And yet here's "The Event," keeping information from us, just when information is sorely needed.

The central problem with this show is that it wants us to ask "why" at nearly every turn. But without a strong core, without a strong sense of why the characters should be asking why, we resist doing so. To go back to "Lost," the reason we and the characters kept asking why all of the crazy stuff was happening was because it was getting in the way of getting off the Island. On "The Event," when crazy stuff happens, it doesn't get in the way of anything. It just happens, and it leaves the characters shrugging. Put another way: Sean got shot tonight, then was saved by a random doctor in a back alley surgery, and I'm only just mentioning it to you now. Had he died, would it have mattered one way or another in the structure of the show? Probably not. And he's the main character. That shouldn't be a good thing.

The story, in case you're sensible and have taken to watching whatever else might happen to be on: Who wanted the president dead? Evil Hal Holbrook did, but the call came from the vice president, who was convinced to jump on board the presidential ticket by Evil Hal Holbrook way back when (as it turns out, the president and VP are from different parties, though the show doesn't bother telling us which parties). Anyway, Evil Hal Holbrook sends some guys to kill the vice president, but Vicky (remember her?) takes them out. Then the vice president is felled by a car bomb before he can tell the president anything. Meanwhile, Sean and Leila are on the run. Sean's shot (in a pretty cool moment, honestly), and Leila finds a random doctor to perform surgery on him in a back alley with whatever he can commandeer from some guy at a pharmacy in the middle of nowhere. Sean's OK now, despite the lack of sterile instruments. Oh and, uh, Hal Holbrook can make himself briefly younger by taking something in an eye dropper. Yeah, it's pretty nuts.

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

Photo: Vice president Jarvis (Bill Smitrovich), a character we've barely met before, gets a whole episode to himself. And you wonder why your ratings are sinking, "The Event"? (Credit: NBC)

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