On Monday, NBC’s much-publicized The Event debuts. I should be excited. The series wants to fill the void left by Lost and 24 by creating a dense, complicated thriller with a global scope and some sort of secret ongoing mythology. It features a ridiculously cryptic title and is powered by an effective/stupid advertising campaign, much like NBC’s last great hope, Heroes. The producers are already talking about having mapped up a certain number of stories that will absolutely keep us wanting more.
This is the perfect formula of nonsense that all the post-Lost genre event-y series have thrown out there. Again, I should be excited. But then again, I got hooked into FlashForward. I got hooked into V (which although is coming back, is still fairly bad). I got hooked into Heroes. And Invasion. And Bionic Woman. And The Nine. And Day Break. And probably more other mostly terrible series that promised all sorts of things that they could far from deliver on. At this point, I’ve wised up. I will absolutely watch The Event when it airs Monday night on NBC, but no longer will I let these damn mythology-heavy series get my hopes up. For the first time in my life as an intelligent television viewer, I am a skeptic, not a believer.
And for me, that’s a big step. So I find it so shocking that there are a number of critics who are buying what The Event and NBC are supposedly selling. The Hollywood Reporter, San Fransisco Chronicle and Mo Ryan just a few folks who were charmed the series’ pilot episode. Some critics are not as high (see Alan Sepinwall’s enjoyable take), but at worst, it seems like the wave of opinion on The Event isn’t any lower than it was for FlashForward, a series that had more or less crashed and burned by episode five.
What’s perhaps more odd is that the critics who did like the pilot are absolutely willing to admit that they’re unclear whether or not the series can sustain the intrigue and supposed quality into the second episode. Although we could write this off as the dangers of reviewing only pilot episodes without seeing multiple efforts at a time, there is something to be said for the fact that we have all been screwed over by this type of series before.
I don’t need to see the pilot of The Event to know that it’s all sizzle and no steak, because that’s how the broadcast networks think they can rope in viewers. And for the pilot episode, that might be true. But despite the networks’ thought that fans of serial genre fare will tune in to anything that hints at a mythology, that’s not really the case (more on this in a bit). Ratings for FlashForward dropped as quickly as the quality of the series did. But as most intelligent critics have said time and time again, of the elements that made Lost most successful, the depth and complication of the characters was very, very high on the list. Sure, there were millions digging for clues online and postulating about what the hell was going on, but without Hurley, Sawyer, Ben, Desmond, Jin and Sun, etc., it wouldn’t have worked. It’s easy to introduce a boatload of characters and let the plot push them around like pieces on a chessboard, it’s much more difficult to tie the plot and characters together in a way that makes reveals in one side seem just as relevant on the other side. No Lost-riffing series has come close in that respect. And I will be shocked if The Event does.
Back to the networks and their decision to keep pumping out these series: In a word, why? I understand that every new series is a major risk, but this type of series much more so. The pilots to series like The Event or FlashForward are very expensive, they tend to be accompanied by seemingly expensive advertising budgets and have larger-than-usual casts full of at least semi-famous people. On top of the financial burden are the massive expectations and the discussions about what could be the “next Lost.” Thus, the total risk and cost of putting a series like The Event on the air doesn’t seem worth it. It would be worth the risk for good series and I never want to advocate complacency among the networks, but none of these Lost clones have been that good (Invasion is a notable exception, in my mind).
But if The Event fails, and history says it will, there will probably be yet another high-concept thriller positioning itself as the new heir to the Lost and 24 thrones. And we’ll do this whole rigmarole again.