I feel bad for television creators. With a new show, a creator has to devise away to immediately suck audiences in while planting the seeds for something that can grow over years. Audiences look for instant gratification and a promise that if they stick with it, they'll be even more satisfied.
Thursday night's premiere of ABC's Zero Hour is a reminder that TV writing is the Mt. Everest of creativity. The large-scale thriller — which intertwines alternative history, global mysteries, terrorist espionage, and a heck of a lot of clock talk into a tapestry of intrigue — kicked off with more of a plop than a bang, introducing a boatload of ideas without too much concern of characters, style, or logic. The pilot didn't match the mind-blowing first episode of LOST (what could?), but it wasn't on par with something like the silly-yet-curious Flashforward opener either. Zero Hour suffered from that quintessential TV paradox: it made a lot of promises while failing to be entertaining on its own right.
If Hank Galliston's (played by Anthony Edwards) search for his missing wife, the collection of Bavarian clocks containing diamond treasure maps, and the truth behind "New Bartholomew" — a new apostle of Christ who looks a lot like Hank and was murdered in a submarine sometime around Word War II — is going to engage audiences after the pilot, Zero Hour is going to have to do a bit of tweaking. The hour-long adventure shows promise. Whether it can figure itself out before ABC cancels it the greatest mystery of all. Here are five things that could use some touching up:
1. Make Hank Galliston a Human Being
If the pilot script for Zero Hour isn't forcing Edwards to deliver long-winded rundowns of history, it's asking him to act like a buffoon who takes matters into his own hands. There isn't much of an introduction to Hank before Zero Hour is set into motion: he loves his wife, he runs Modern Skeptic magazine, and he's doesn't take BS from anyone. When his wife, Laila (Jacinda Barrett), is kidnapped, he immediately springs into action. Screw the FBI, even though they want to help — Hank's an independent guy and he knows there are greater mysteries afoot. Most of the Zero Hour pilot is dedicated to Hank accidentally stumbling upon clues that will lead him to the show's bigger throughline, mainly a set of clocks that were built to protect the world from the Antichrist. But the only way I'm going to enjoy going on this adventure is if Hank turns into a guy who acts with rational behavior. Right now he's a bitter version of Robert Langdon from Da Vinci Code.
2. Beef Up the Bad Guys
Nazis, a terrorist sitting at the top of every Wanted list, and potentially an otherworldly beast bent on destroying the world. Those are villains fitting of a show that treks across the world, but eventually, Zero Hour needs to find a connection between Hank and Michael Nyqvist's White Vincent. "This time, it's personal" is a chuckle-worthy tagline that's also the foundation of every great cat and mouse game. Even though Vincent has Hank's wife — and we even see him stick a gun to her head! — the stakes of Zero Hour are incredibly low. We aren't privy to why Nyqvist is chasing the mysterious set of WWII clocks, just that if he gets them all the world is at stake. Not revealing everything is part of the groundwork, but it's the kind of diabolical plan that works in a two hour movie and not over the course of a TV series. We need to know what the hell Vincent is all about as soon as possible if his actions are to carry any weight.
3. Bring Back Charles Dutton!
For some reason, Charles Dutton appears in the pilot of Zero Houras a know-it-all priest who is nearly murdered by Vincent. We're told he's OK… but he better be. Dutton adds much needed gravitas to the show. His role is absolutely ridiculous – yes, of course I can translate this dead language for you! — but delivery is everything. If someone has to point Hank and his team every time they hit a road block, it should be someone with the sage-like whispers of Dutton.
4. Go Smaller
It's apparent that Zero Hour is ABC's attempt to deliver the cinematic experience of National Treasure adventures to the small screen. In the pilot, Hank and his Modern Skeptic crew Germany and Canada, with hints that they'll be tracking clocks, built by Christian mythic the Rosicruciates, all over the world. But the show could stand to narrow its vision, as every new location forces the writers to conjure up reasons for why the action should be taking place there. This was the appeal of X-Files for me: they travel the U.S., but each location feels lived in and distinct, with Mulder and Scully attempting to conduct by-the-book business wherever they would end up. The race against time nature of Zero Hour doesn't lend itself to procedurel blueprints, but finding a way to keep the action contained and feel like a mystery would only up the drama.
5. Stop Saying Clocks.
Yes, clocks are everywhere in Zero Hour, a seemingly perfect metaphor for the many countdowns in Hank's life. But the pilot script for Zero Hour abuses the word. Every other sentence is "clocks this!" and "clocks that!" It speaks to a bigger problem: Zero Hour can't sustain itself on revelations every ten minutes, especially when the revelations feel forced. Build up is necessary to pull off a shocking moment, not just the entire cast gasping simultaneously while music swells. Zero Hour is relentless. First Hank discovers the clock (DUN DUN!), then he discovers a diamond in the clock (DUN DUN DUN!), then he discovers the diamond contains a map inside of it (DUN DUN DUN DUN!). As I watched, I didn't know why any of it was important.
That's what will make or break Zero Hour: investment. Can they take their time crafting a story that earns its revelations of will they shotgun them out every week, trigger that part of our brain that just needs to know the answers so it can rest easy. The first option sounds entertaining. The latter sounds exhausting.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: ABC]
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