Persons Unknown – Postmortem

Warning: this article contains spoilers for the series finale of Persons Unknown. If you’ve not yet seen the finale, you will be spoiled.

What the heck was that? And why are we all so brassed off about it?

Since the end of NBC’s summer thriller Persons Unknown aired, I’ve been staring at my TV trying to make sense of it, and I’m not the only one. My review of the final two hours already has over 80 comments. Not to mention, I’m getting annoyed tweets on Twitter for not liking it. Apparently, hating a series finale can take you from friend of the fanbase to pariah in less than 24 hours. Which made me wonder: what’s the big deal? If the goal of the show was to create something we were going to talk about, it’s certainly done that. What else did it do? I’m not really sure.

There seem to be two distinct camps when it comes to an opinion of the finale:

1) People who hated it, largely because it provided little answers to the burning question “What is the Program?” and/or seemed to be an exercise in time-wasting by having almost all the protagonists end up right back where they started, in the Program. There are other reasons, too, but those were the two most mentioned that I could find.

2) People who liked it, thinking either it left the door open for or ensures a second season – though this part of the argument ignores the show’s dismal time slot and ratings (it was actually beaten by gymnastics one week) – or was some reflection on the Program’s idea of a lack of free will. Again, there are other reasons, but then you get into metaphors and religious allegories and all sorts of stuff.

The more I thought on it, a third idea sprung to mind:

3) There isn’t, and possibly never was, a set conclusion or set of answers to the story. The writers provided a purposefully vague storyline and outcome in order to force the viewing audience to fill in the blanks themselves and make up their own reasons why. Several television shows have done this with individual episodes (what comes to mind for me is the Without A Trace episode which fades to black while they’re waiting for the phone to ring regarding the fate of a death row inmate), but I’ve never seen it done as a series conclusion.

A lot of the argument seems to hinge on the idea of whether or not the finale was intended as a series or season finale. Persons Unknown was always marketed by NBC as a miniseries (remember that maddening voiceover every week that insisted “all will be revealed”?), but was it intended that way? I’ve read yes, others insist no. So I did a little digging and decided to see what I could find out. Collider did a lengthy interview with EP Remi Aubuchon which seems to suggest even the people behind the scenes didn’t have much of an idea which it was. When talking about the beginnings of the show, he refers to it as a “13-episode series,” suggesting that it was always intended as a miniseries. Then he goes and says the following:

“We did shoot it with the idea of it being an ongoing series, but because I am insane when I get to the end of a season and they give you a big, giant cliff-hanger with no answers, I insisted that we provide all the answers to the questions that we set up at the beginning. And then what I hope will happen at the end is that there will be a big enough springboard that, if we chose to go for a second season, we would have one. But there will be none of those maddening teases that we’re going to tell you the answers and then we don’t tell you the answers.”

This is followed by:

“I feel confident that we will have a beginning, middle and end in this season, and it was wise of NBC to then call it what it really is, which is a mini-series.”

So (strange grammar in that paragraph aside), even if you believe the idea that the show was intended as an ongoing series – which makes the “I’m on a boat” ending of the final episode somewhat understandable – Aubuchon clearly states that he insisted they provide all the answers to the questions by the end of the season, because he knew that there might not be a second. The show’s writers clearly didn’t provide all the answers; in fact, they didn’t provide many at all. A “maddening tease” is exactly what we got thanks to those voiceovers, although I’ll lay the blame for that at the feet of NBC’s marketing department.

Furthermore, I have to question the intent of the writers. If you believe Wikipedia (thanks to Jacob for the link), production on the show wrapped in early 2009, so they would have no way of knowing that the ratings tanked and they weren’t going to get a season two. Whatever they wrote was going to stand. That said, even if they wanted to write with a cliffhanger in mind, we’ve seen shows that have furnished episodes that worked as both season and series finale. Numerous shows have taken season finales and written them in such a way that they also work as series finales because they’re unsure of their fate. Chuck comes to mind, where Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak have publicly said that they write episodes that work as both season and series finale because they never know if they’re coming back. Why couldn’t Persons Unknown have written a finale that at least provided some answers while still furnishing the desired ‘springboard’to an elusive season two? They had no idea if they were or were not coming back, but wouldn’t it have been possible to write to both possibilities?

So which is it, then? Is it option three, that they were leaving it up to us to decide what we thought the ending was? It’s possible, but somehow I doubt it. That would scream of lazy storytelling to some people, and there’s just too much that they left unsaid to let the audience make up their mind over. Ambiguous fates of characters would be one thing, but deciding the entire purpose of the Program and fate of all the characters seems too much. One commenter suggested that they could have ended the story at the end of episode 1.12, wherein everyone escapes from their body bags. That would have been a different yet still ambiguous place to stop. Where would the captives go? What would they do? And Joe would still be working from the inside to dismantle the Program – would he succeed? We’d never know, but at least we’d have something to hold onto. (Admittedly, as a Jason Wiles fan of the highest order, the idea of him going on a crusade to destroy the Program would have been fun as heck to watch, but that’s just me.)

It’s obvious that, unless the DVDs – which street on September 7, or about a week from now – contain some sort of illuminating commentary or special features (which I would love but doubt given how the show petered off into TV oblivion) – no one is ever going to know the real intent behind Persons Unknown behind the cameras, or the real truth to the ending in front of them. No one’s right and no one’s wrong, so arguing and name-calling are rather pointless amongst what remains of the show’s fanbase. Personally, I disliked it and I think I always will, no matter how many people try to change my mind. Yet I think there’s one thing we can all agree on: at least Persons Unknown got us talking about television, which is never a bad thing. You can’t really argue with that.

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