Kidnappings, supernatural occurrences, explosions, terrorism, government secrets and a pivotal plane crash: did the makers of this autumn's new flagship TV drama The Event just throw parts of 24 and Lost together in the shape of a new big-budget thriller, or is it something fresh that's going to be just as addictive? One thing's for certain: NBC is pushing hard for it to be this year's Next Big Thing. The hype is loud, the production values are high, and it's been sold to networks on five continents.
We're thrown into the middle of the action right from the beginning of the pilot episode, when a seemingly sweet, romantic guy called Sean Walker - on a cruise with his girlfriend Leila and preparing to propose - is shown hijacking a plane and trying to crash it into the president, Elias Martinez. When Martinez isn't dodging runaway aircraft, he's trying to shut down a shadowy government detention centre, although the prison's mysterious inmates look as though they're going to cause him some trouble.
After a handful of episodes, it's still not certain what the "event" of the title is, but the show's executive producers have said that there's a big showdown that it's all heading towards.
Like 24, there's barely time to draw breath as calamity after calamity hits our heroes, and the personal gets twisted up with the political. And as with Lost, there's something unearthly going on. When the plane's diverted from the president and his cohorts at the 11th hour, let's just say it's not because the pilot had a change of heart. It looks like the network was searching for another hit show that combines sci-fi with elements of realism.
The series creator Nick Wauters told the website Television Blend at Comic Con this year that he wrote a version of the pilot four years ago, which centred on Sean and his disappearing girlfriend. When NBC got around to commissioning it, they asked him, in Wauters' words: "Can we do something otherworldly, add a bit of science fiction in there?" The Event certainly looks like it's been re-tooled to fill the void left by Jack Shephard and his pals.
The cast, except for Laura Innes (best known as ER's Dr Weaver) as an imprisoned freedom fighter, is made up of unfamiliar faces, but The Event's publicity machine has come up with a very zeitgeisty way of promoting the show, by giving the characters twitter feeds. One feed, "Leila, if I don't make it out of this, please know I love you. XOXO." If you were following "Sean!! I left you a VM. I'm at the Police Station in Snyder, Texas. Pls hurry!" The tweets correspond with the series' action as it unfolds on US TV. In other countries, it gives a taste of what's coming up next.
Of course, The Event's not the only show looking to replace Lost and 24, both of which went off air in May this year. Sci-fi's a harder nut to crack than other drama formats and the high-concept, supernatural Flash Forward was cancelled after just one season, after waning ratings in 2009. JJ Abrams's latest sci-fi series Fringe has lost viewers since its 2008 launch, and Joss Whedon's clever, futuristic thriller-drama Dollhouse was cancelled after two seasons. Can The Event succeed where these failed?
The drama 24 became the topic of water-cooler conversations around the world because of its innovative real-time format, as well as its sharp, suspenseful execution. Lost provoked an endless debate: what is the island meant to represent and why are the characters stranded there? The Event has neither a central mystery as compelling nor a dazzlingly new style, and its constantly shifting time frame (bouncing around from the 1940s to months ago to hours ago to now) only serves to confuse. Leila and Sean are likeable enough characters, but they're neither heroic archetypes nor complicatedly real: they're just nice, good-looking folk.
It's been hinted that there are some big plot revelations lurking on the horizon in The Event, but smaller mysteries are concluded quickly, giving viewers a bit of relief before they're plunged into further puzzles. It's too early to say whether the government conspiracies, the personal trials and the supernatural elements are tied together in a clever, satisfying way, or whether they've all just been chucked into the mix in order to tick boxes. The television executives will be hoping that viewers stick around to find out.