‘The Event’: It’s All Happening

With its melange of big island set pieces, ramped-up fuselage drama, and elaborate conspiracy theories, The Event pulls from some obvious and very recent predecessors. Already we feel like we’ve seen it before, on Lost, FlashForward, V, and 24, among others.

Opening with chaotic, scrambled handheld footage of screaming and gasping and lots of earth-shaking that could have been salvaged from 9/11 or Haiti or even Cloverfield, The Event conveys aggressively that something is about to Go Down. Just before that thing happens, the music swells and then a title card cuts to “23 Minutes Earlier.” Thus begins a series of expository flashbacks that hiccup over a year’s worth of events leading up to The Event.

The story is this: a band of mysterious prisoners, led by Sophie (Laura Innes, who is just as icy as she was on ER) are being held in a secret Alaskan facility. Once the U.S. president, Elias Martinez (Blair Underwood), finds out about Sophie and her people, a diplomatic meeting is arranged, as well as protested by his advisors and Cabinet members. The naysayers plead with the president, that he can tell the world the prisoners exist, but please, just don’t let them loose. And who are these prisoners? Well, we just don’t know yet. The series doesn’t wield them as a symbol of any historical or earthbound entities, like refugees or detainees. And so we get the idea that they are otherworldly.

During this political negotiating and infighting, we meet The Event‘s regular guy protagonist, Sean Walker (Jason Ritter). He’s on a Virgin Island cruise, looking for the right moment to pop the question to his categorically adorable girlfriend Leila (Sarah Roemer). She’s so adorable, actually, that when people meet her, they can’t help but tell Sean how “cute” and “hot” she is (“I know both those things,” he concurs). And so it’s little surprise when, before the 30-minute mark, she goes missing from their cruise ship suite. He returns from a day of snorkeling to find there’s no record of either of them as guests. Frantic, he searches the ship for her, insisting, “I’m not on drugs! I know she’s here!”

Sean’s righteous panic notwithstanding, the cuts back and forth in time eventually reveal that, just before the big scary thing at this episode’s beginning, he’s waving a gun on a plane that he’s attempting to hijack. Though he’s surrounded by men trying to take him down and he does have a gun, Sean is, after all, an ordinary white guy, and so his opponents grant him a predictable but awfully strange leniency. Sean manages to convince the crew on board that in order to save many lives, he must get to the cockpit. Had Sean been named Mohammed, it’s likely no one would have listened to him — even if he was speaking English.

In fact, the series’ handling of race is somewhat bizarre, evidenced by its African American president with traditionally Jewish and Latino names. Whatever the intention here, the gesture seems lazily pan-ethnic. Underwood’s performance is believably presidential, without defaulting to impersonations of Dennis Haysbert, Morgan Freeman or Barack Obama. But it’s hard to ignore the ways in which his power is undermined by his white Cabinet Secretaries. As he insists that as the president, he “needs to know” about things like secret prisoners in Alaskan detainment facilities, his listeners smirking, their condescension barely contained.

What’s ultimately frustrating about The Event is not the lack of answers (though the pilot does conclude with Sophie telling President Martinez,” I haven’t told you everything”) or the dreadfully lazy characterizations. It’s the insistence that the plot somehow taps into something that’s happening right now in the United States. This even as the premiere episode refuses to offer any specific analogue. In order for The Event to work as a series, a metaphor or sociopolitical commentary, it’s going to have to commit to a clear direction. For now, the show is just as vague as its title.

RATING 4 / 10