Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Vanished - A Vague Sense Of The Familiar

Let's see if this sounds a bit familiar. You have a male FBI agent who has a female partner. The male FBI agent has something dark in his past which affects the way that he approaches his job. He's also got a problem with authority. Not that he isn't good at his job because he is. There are those who even respect him, but he wants things done his way and doesn't want interference from above. The female agent is there to work as his partner but also to rein him in. Oh yeah, and there's a huge conspiracy running through the series that the FBI agents are initially unaware of, but put the pieces of the puzzle together to discover more.

Sounds sort of like The X-Files right? Add in the notion that the series is devoted to one case, the solution of which presumably will also reveal the true nature of the conspiracy and it sounds like a cross between the X-Files, 24 and more than a small amount of The Da Vinci Code. And if the thing is done right it could be worthy of those comparisons. The trouble is that based on the first episode (which aired on Monday and re-aired on Tuesday in Fox's second hour), it doesn't seem worthy of the lineage. There's something there, at least in terms of potential, but so far at least it feels as though it's all being badly mishandled.

The episode starts calmly enough with a hook for the viewers. Sara Collins (Joanne Kelly), second grade teacher and wife of Senator Jeffrey Collins, is sitting in her home office correcting papers. The hook is that she's also talking on the phone and she's agitated with the person that she's talking to. She ends the phone call abruptly when her husband comes home and tells the caller not to call her at home again. After a brief interlude at home which is intended to indicate how much in love the Senator and his wife are we go with them to an event for a charity that Sara is instrumental in organizing. At the event we're given indications that the Senator has political enemies. After a cute scene in which a little girl gives Sara a macaroni necklace and Jeffrey lets her replace the diamond necklace he just that day bought her with it, she's called away by a concierge to answer a phone call...and vanishes.

We're next given a couple of vignettes from the lives of what I think will be the other two key characters. FBI Special Agent Graham Kelton (Gale Harold) is seen reliving the ransom drop for a ten year-old kidnapping victim named Nathan Miller. Everything seems to be working out all right when an FBI sniper kills the kidnapper. And then it suddenly goes horribly wrong. Nathan has a bomb strapped to his body and the kidnapper has a "deadman switch". When the man's thumb goes limp the switch is released and the bomb on Nathan blows up. It's something that haunts him even as he watches his daughter Inez prepare for her first Communion. That's when he gets the In the other vignette we see a beautiful woman removing her bra in a high end apartment and hopping on top of a somewhat scruffy looking man. She's obviously used to being in charge, to the point of telling her lover which cheek to kiss. They are getting into their sexual frolics when the first news report of the kidnapping comes in. Immediately she gets off her lover (talk about your coitus interruptus!) and, naked except for a thong, calls in to her TV station telling them (not asking them) that she's covering the story and telling her lover/cameraman to get his clothes on. She is reporter Judy Nash (Rebecca Gayheart) and you just know that she and Kelton are going to tangle in one way or another (or possibly many).

All of this occurs within what seems like the first ten minutes of the show. Suddenly things shift into light speed. We meet Kelton's partner on this case Lin Mei (played by Ming Na) whose job is to rein him in from ruffling too many feathers and breaching too many procedures. Before the first commercial - which admittedly occurs about fifteen minutes into the episode) they lift a finger print from the chair that the Senator's wife had been sitting in and which the fake concierge pulled out for her when she left for the phone call, learned that the Senator's daughter was also missing and seen the SWAT Team - led by Lin Mei - go into a house where the daughter and her boyfriend, with whom she's running away to get married, are starting to do much the same thing that the reporter and her cameraman were doing. In the course of the episode we see two more forced entries into houses or hotel rooms by the FBI, a car chase which ended with the discovery of the fake concierge shot to death in the trunk of his own car and a couple of clues that are mentioned and processed almost as soon as they're found. If you thought that the CSI shows processed clues fast, they're positively snail-like compared with these guys. The pace is often frenetic which is a problem with this size of cast and the apparent complexity of the mystery they're trying to solve. What's worse is that in those moments when the pace slows down for what little character development there seems to be, the show seems to drag. This is particularly true when the Senator talks to Kelton about Nathan's death, or the scene where the Senator's daughter discovers that her boyfriend has a bloodied jacket in his washing machine and a sports bag full of money sitting beside it.

If you get the feeling that I'm not overly enthusiastic about this show, you're partly right. There are elements that I like. Kelton's a brash character who is invariably the smartest man in the room but I'm not sure that's entirely a bad thing, and he does have a line when he first meets Nash (and everyone thinks that the Senator's daughter has also been kidnapped) that largely sums up certain parts of the news media these days: "You want these women to stay missing so that maybe someday you'll be as famous as they are." The Senator comes across - initially at least - as a concerned and loving husband who doesn't know why this happened to him. The conspiracy elements are not seen much in the first episode but are just intriguing enough as a hint to start us wondering. The fake concierge has a symbol tattooed on his hand that everyone seems to believe is the numeral 9 rendered in an angular shape, although I'm not convinced. The mystery gets even deeper when the ballistics test on the bullet that killed the concierge comes back to an extremely rare gun, and there's only one in the Atlanta area. The address tied to the gun is an abandoned house that looks like something out of Gone With The Wind where the agents come upon the perfectly preserved body of the wife of the former Mayor of Atlanta who also disappeared...ten years ago. She's clutching a prayer card featuring Saint Nathan.

The acting in this series seems highly variable. John Allen Nelson is very strong as Senator Jeffrey Collins, a man who is used to being in charge and suddenly isn't, but I'm less than impressed with Gale Harold who may be best known for playing Wyatt Earp in two episodes of Deadwood and Brian Kinney in the American version of Queer As Folk. Rebecca Gayheart does what she can with the character of Judy Nash but she seems to be an amalgam of all the bad things people think about the press. Two quite strong actors seem like they're being wasted in this. While Ming Na is Kelton's partner but after the first episode we still know literally nothing about her. So far at least a piece of wood could have been cast. Another strong actor in the cast is Esai Morales, who played Lieutenant Tony Rodriguez on NYPD Blue. Here he plays Kelton's boss, Supervisor Kyle Tyner, but he seems to have even less to do than Ming Na. This is annoying because I think he'd be much stronger than Gale Harold in the role of Kelton. But casting isn't the major thing that's bothering me in this show.

What does bother me is the combination of pacing and character development. The first season of 24 offers a clue about how this first episode should have gone. In that first episode we met Jack Bauer, his wife Terri, and his daughter Kim, and we found out about them. We met many of the people at CTU and picked up some details of their lives. We met presidential candidate David Palmer and his wife and kids. The essence of the plot was introduced but the episode was primarily about discovering the people. It wasn't until towards the end of the episode that the first overt act - the kidnapping of Kim Bauer - took place, and because of what had come before it was a shocking event. That pilot episode built gradually so that we were prepared for the action that followed in subsequent episodes. The pilot of Lost gave us characters to care about before introducing us to the mysteries of the island. Even reality shows understand the need to give us "characters" that we can root for or regard as villains. By comparison Vanished dumped us right into the action without the opportunity to gain any sort of depth of understanding of most of the characters. More to the point the degree which any character development was undertaken seems to indicate just how important the principal characters are: Senator Collins - important; Kelton - important; Lin Mei - not important; Judy Nash - important; Tyner - thoroughly unimportant. I'm not sure that we even care that much about Sara Carter except as a Hitchcock style McGuffin. At this level of character development I wouldn't be surprised to see Lin Mei killed, and if she was I can't see myself caring that much. I'm not suggesting that the show should have delayed the kidnapping of Sara Carter until the end of the episode, but to stage it in the first five minutes makes the investigation the focus of the show without giving us people to care about.

In the end I'll watch a few more episodes of Vanished hoping, perhaps vainly, that it might improve. The concept is intriguing and I'd like to see the conspiracy elements being introduced into the show further. What I fear however is that if the pace is maintained without giving us people to care about, I'll end up not caring - and not watching - by the time the mystery is fully developed, if indeed the show lasts that long. I'll mark this series down as a guarded maybe.

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