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Roger Ebert included "The Usual Suspects" on his list of Most Hated movies, but I watch it whenever possible - love the mysterious Turkish villain, love Fenster's mumbling, love the twist ending. Christopher McQuarrie won an Oscar for his screenplay, so I can't be the only one.
Now McQuarrie brings us the 13-episode mystery "Persons Unknown." A group of seven strangers are kidnapped, and wake up locked in a hotel in an abandoned town just north of nowhere. It's hard to say what they have in common; there's a single mother who ran a day care; a counselor; a rich guy; a car salesman; a hungover party girl; a Marine; and a gentleman who identifies himself as Joe, but declines to say much more about himself. He's played by "Third Watch's" Jason Wiles, and he has an eclectic set of skills: He knows how to open magnetically sealed doors, for instance, and can make fire than anyone who's ever been on "Survivor."
(Side note: The rich guy is played by "Ferris Bueller's" Alan Ruck. Is an ensemble ever really complete without Alan Ruck?)
The premise is intriguing, although it's difficult to watch without backseat driving. Among the advice I shouted at the screen: "Call 911!" "Run!" "He's totally in on it!" "Don't tell them your net worth!"
Cameras watch the prisoners' every move, and it quickly becomes apparent that there's no way out. So what do the bad guys want? Who [ital]are[unital] the bad guys? And will there be Chinese food every day?
It's comforting, at least, to know that in exactly 13 hours, we'll have our answer. But "Persons Unknown" raises another question: Is it too much to ask of TV audiences that we commit to a cryptic series with the vague hope that there will be a payoff at the end?
The late, great "Law & Order" taught us to expect stand-alone episodes that can be resolved neatly within the hour, so we can immediately move on with our lives. And this is summer, after all, when we require nothing more than the Big Balls of "Wipeout" to entertain us.
Reality TV, of course, depends on the payoff, although there's much less commitment involved. You can skip the eliminations of about 15 of the guys on "The Bachelorette" and still be invested in the inevitable proposal.
All the fuss over the "Lost" finale illustrates the love-hate relationship we have with TV mysteries. From the first episode, it was hard to watch the show without continuously asking, "Why?" I think the creators met -- and even exceeded -- expectations with the series' end, but there were just as many viewers with the reaction, "What? Really?"
It's the rare occasion that I find myself angry at the television, but last year's remake of "The Prisoner" - with its lame, incomprehensible ending - nearly provoked me to violence.
There are, of course, both positive and negative arguments for payoff TV.
Pro: "FlashForward" was one of my favorite series of the season, with an unmatched cast, a conspiracy of global proportions, and a finale that was satisfying despite not answering many questions. (Producers' hopes for a second season proved to be premature.)
Con: "Twin Peaks." I think we're all still hurting from that one.
Based on McQuarrie's track record and the show's setup, I think "Persons Unknown" is worth the gamble. But it is a gamble, and 13 hours is a lot of time to lose if the payoff isn't worth it.
While he was taking notes about "The Usual Suspects," Ebert wrote: "To the degree that I do understand, I don't care." Ultimately, the finale to "Persons Unknown" better be a whopper, or it could signal the end of the mystery series genre. It might be a lot to expect to have all our questions answered . . . but a little closure doesn't seem like too much to task for.