NBC has had great success with Manifest, a mystifying puzzle box series that keeps viewers guessing every week by doling out small bits of information regarding its central mystery. Now the network is hoping to replicate that level of success with Debris, the latest sci-fi show from J.H. Wyman, who was an executive producer and showrunner of Fox’s Fringe before creating Almost Human in 2013. Unfortunately, based on the premiere—the only episode that was made available to critics for review—this latest attempt to create a mystery-fueled drama falls a bit flat.
Debris follows two intelligence agents, one American and one British, who are assigned to recover bits of debris from a destroyed alien spacecraft that have been scattered across the Western Hemisphere. When humans come into contact with these pieces, several different things can happen. For instance, a hotel maid is able to phase through 14 stories of a hotel simply by touching a small, triangular piece of the wreckage that someone left behind, while a much larger piece of the spacecraft is able to manifest a vision of someone’s dead mother from their memory. These pieces of alien tech somehow mess with the laws of physics, but not like in a fun Mystery Spot kind of way, hence the need for a retrieval team.
Jonathan Tucker portrays the American representative, Bryan Beneventi, who’s been pulled out of Afghanistan and assigned to the project, while Rianne Steel plays his British counterpart, Finola Jones, whose father was the first astrophysicist to be told the truth about what had been found in the photos of the debris cloud taken by the Hubble telescope. They’re a mismatched pair, and not just because they come from different countries or have different backgrounds—they also have different approaches to their work. For Bryan, this is a meaningful job but not something he cares enough about to do the paperwork involved. Meanwhile, Finola is a true believer and is inspired by the possibilities this alien tech presents. “I believe this technology, if understood properly, can end famine, cure sickness,” she says early on in the premiere. “I think what we’re doing here will absolutely change the course of humanity.” Whether or not she’s right or if that’s even a good idea is what the series hopes to figure out.
Luckily the premiere skips right over the discovery of the first piece of debris and drops viewers into the middle of the action. When the episode opens, Bryan and Finola are chasing down a piece of debris that’s about to be sold on the black market. While it’s clear that’s going to be a continuing storyline, most of the hour is dedicated to setting the stage and introducing us to the main players as they attempt to solve a separate mystery involving several unconnected people in Kansas who were found floating in a field—they are no longer alive, but aren’t yet dead either. As this is going on, the series is dropping hints about a larger narrative that dares viewers to believe in something outside of our own Earthbound existence.
In order to be successful, series like Debris (i.e. shows that revolve around a swirling central mystery), must be compelling at every stage of the game. Even after witnessing multiple strange events and the debris’ odd ability to manipulate the laws of physics, I can’t say I’m that interested in watching more of the show to get to the how and why of it all, even with an ending that hints at something bigger and more dangerous than even the threat of alien technology falling to Earth and affecting how we live our lives. Not even the presence of Tucker, who is tremendous in everything he does and is the type of actor who can improve the quality of a project simply by being in it, makes this particular story must-see TV. Known for seamlessly blending into his roles, which have traditionally been a bit more bold or dramatic than this one, Tucker seems to stick out a bit, as if he’s not yet comfortable in this universe or delivering lines about aliens and other sci-fi mumbo-jumbo. That being said, there is one moment in the pilot that reveals why you want someone like him in this role and on this show: In the episode’s emotional climax, the vulnerability that Tucker does so well breaks through the action for a brief, single moment, and it’s enough to at least make you want to know more about Bryan and his past if not the mystery at the center of the show.
Network television is in need of a truly great sci-fi series, something that merges episodic formulas with serialized storytelling to keep viewers tuning in week after week in the hopes that the writers will dole out a little bit more information about the mystery at the heart of the show—in this case, what happened to the alien ship, why it is here now, and what happens if all the pieces are eventually recovered. I want to believe that Debris can be this show and that it will be able to dig into more compelling storylines that pose questions about life, the universe, and everything now that some of the table-setting is out of the way, but it’s difficult to judge whether that is possible from just the one episode. And since that’s all NBC saw fit to send in advance, it doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in what’s to come. As such, this is one puzzle that isn’t worth solving.
Debris premieres Monday, March 1st on NBC.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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