Friday, May 11, 2007

Promise of a Premise

One of the great joys of Netflix is getting to revisit old t.v. obsessions. This past week I've been reliving one of my favorite shows from the mid 90's, a series called Nowhere Man.


Bruce Greenwood plays Tom Veil, a successful photojournalist. The pilot episode features Veil at his first art opening and the center of his art show is a piece called "Hidden Agenda", a photograph he took in South America of an political execution. Veil's wined and dined by art critics and buyers, and, at least for the evening, is toast of the town. Of course, following Miss L's rule of drama whenever things are going too well it means something bad is about to happen.


Veil and his wife go to dinner to celebrate Veil's newfound artistic success. Midway through the meal Veil gets up to use the restroom---and sneak a few drags from a cigarette--- and he returns to find his wife missing. He questions the owner of the restaurant, who claims to not even remember him or his wife. Veil makes his way home only to find his wife with another man and claiming not to recognize Veil. Not knowing what else to do he returns to his studio to figure out what's going on.

He learns that someone wants the negatives of "Hidden Agenda" and Veil refuses. He's captured, imprisoned and, by the end of episode, finally escapes. The episodes that follow work like a dramatic dance as Veil tries to keep from being caught while also attempting to unearth clues to identity of the people who destroyed his life.

It mines some of the same grand conspiracy material as the X-Files. The nameless villains were not only able to erase every trace of Veil's life but they also seem to have control over pieces of the Army, the FBI and even television broadcasts. Not surprisingly, there seems to be a good bit of overlap with staff who worked on both shows, the most obvious being Mark Snow, who did the theme and incidental music for both shows.

It was a perfect cult show because it was one of those shows where you never really knew exactly what was going on. Characters and plot points from past episodes reappear, but in new ways causing you to continually question whatever assumptions you made about the show previously. Back in the day I kept a notebook filed with clues the show, and I even trolled usenet to find more clues (this was in '95, well before every t.v. show had its own message board). The series ended after 25 episodes, which let down the fans since nothing really got answered. I always wondered what the full story was and was excited to see the DVD's available. I've been enjoying them all week.

Unfortunately, I've also watched some of the DVD extras. One of them features an interview with series creator/producer Larry Hertzog. He admits a strong influence from earlier t.v. shows like The Fugitive and The Prisoner (which I really need to watch someday), but also went into some things that were a little disappointing. He said he didn't know who the ultimate villains were and that he didn't think it was important to the show. He never thought of it as a show with an endpoint, but more as an ensemble show like The Twilight Zone where writers and directors could come in and play with odd ideas. The only common threads were the character of Veil and that each episode explored a different type of paranoia.

I almost didn't believe him. It always felt like there was a larger story behind the scenes and it's too bad to discover there really wasn't. I'm apparently not alone in this since sites like host a fair amount of fan-fic. Someone with a sense of humor has even given Veil his own myspace page.
Possibly a larger story would have formed if the series had been given more time. Or maybe not. But whatever the case it's all made me think about writing and living up to the full premise of what you create. When you don't manage to do that you fail the story and you fail the audience. I, of course, also thought about one of my current favorite shows, Lost, and all the layers upon layers of unanswered questions the show still has. At one point I thought there had to be a master plan behind everything but now I wonder.


In the end it might be best that Nowhere Man never reached an endpoint. If it had, the paranoia would have ended. Instead fans can still think of Veil out there wandering, questioning and struggling to find the answers. In a way a nice, albeit dark, metaphor for life.



Matt said...

Wow, if you like this, definitely check out the Prisoner - so weird and well done. You even mentioning it makes me want to start renting them.

Hebdomeros said...

I saw a couple of episodes a few years ago back when Maryland Public Television used to run the Prisoner. I remember liking what I saw, but I don't really remember much more than that. I've got it on my Netflix que, but it's gonna be awhile. I'm on the one-at-a-time plan and the Prisoner hits somewhere around 80 in my que. Someday, though.

Lady M said...

This reminds me of Sci-Fi's recent mini-series "The Lost Room." The show centers around a cop who finds a key at a crime scene which opens a door to a room that has been disconnected from space and time. He loses his daughter in the room, and proceeds to find out all he can in order to bring her back, including discovering that "something terrible" happened in this hotel room in the 50s or 60s, and now every object from the room is imbued with its own power. I was really into the show until the end, which was basically comprised of a hasty wrap-up (for the main antagonist) and unanswered questions (for the premise of the show). Supposedly, this was done in order to facilitate the creation of a full-fledged series, but as a viewer I felt betrayed. Although I realize the monetary agenda behind TV shows, and the desire to create a niche market in order to continue writing the intriguing material people are searching for, as a writer, I find it insulting that they did not take the time to compose a better send-off point.

Hebdomeros said...

I don't have cable, so I haven't seen "The Lost Room". But it sounds like a similar circumstance. It is one of the weaknesses of television. A great, innovative idea comes along but they feel the need to package it in a way to make it a simple commodity. To wrap it up with a little bow so it's all easily digestible. But good stories don't always work that way.

I think a big part of why I still enjoy "Nowhere Man" is because it's a show that makes you uncomfortable. This same quality probably factored into it being canned after one season.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to pass along the sad news that Larry Hertzog, creator of the UPN series Nowhere Man, passed away this weekend.

More details will follow on the forums for his podcast series which can be accessed here: (registration required)

If you get a chance pour a cocktail, listen to an episode of the show and say a toast for Larry.