Monday, January 7, 2019

TV REVIEW: History's 'Project Blue Book'

History will premiere its new original drama series Project Blue Book on Tuesday, January 8 at 10/9c. The drama stars Aidan Gillen, Michael Malarkey, Laura Mennell, Michael Harney, Ksenia Solo and Neal McDonough.

Read on for my thoughts on the new drama after screening its first six episodes.

Paranoia permeates throughout every single action and story in History's new scripted drama series Project Blue Book. The drama is loosely based on the real-life U.S. Air Force program, Project Blue Book, which existed in the 1950s and 60s to investigate supposed UFO encounters and unexplained phenomenon. There are absolutely hints of The X-Files flowing through the DNA of the new series. However, it has a period appeal that hopes to tie into the fear that led to a sweeping pandemic across the country that the entire world was going to end soon. The drama opens in 1952. The Cold War is strong with everyone worrying that the Soviets will launch nuclear missiles any day now. Duck and cover drills are being carried out at schools. Families are buying bomb shelters at their local hardware stores. With the addition of UFOs, it makes it seem to the average American family that the sky is falling and death is upon us. That's a lot of doom and gloom. And yes, the series accurately portrays this growing hysteria and fear that the Soviets will somehow defeat the United States in every technological advancement moving forward. That fuels so many of the character's actions throughout this narrative. In fact, the generals who oversee this program want to know if any of the mysterious objects seen in the sky are actually new forms of Soviet technology sent to spy on us. If so, they would like it for themselves in order to even out the war that could destroy them all. At the heart of all of this is Dr. J Allen Hynek, an astrophysicist and tenured professor. He is the man recruited by the Air Force to oversee the investigations and come up with the science that can be used to debunk all of these sightings in order to maintain peace throughout the country.

Aidan Gillen stars as Dr. J Allen Hynek, his first television role since his exit from HBO's Game of Thrones. This is a wildly different character for him as well. Of course, it first has to be stated that he has an American accent in this and it's not really all that good. In fact, it gets even worse when he has to yell or show an extreme amount of emotion. That inconsistency can take the audience out of the performance. Elsewhere, Allen is a man who is growing more obsessed with the cases he is asked to handle. His partner in this endeavor is Captain Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey), who understands that the two of them just need to come in with a simple and quick solution that can appease everyone. He doesn't want to rock the boat because he still aspires to climb through the ranks of the military. The generals overseeing the program - Hugh Valentine (Michael Harney) and James Harding (Neal McDonough) - know much more than they are letting on and feel it's a problem if Allen or Quinn decide to ask too many questions. As such, that creates the idea that the United States government doesn't truly want to get to the bottom of what is going on. They feel the urgency for this program because Hollywood is making people fear for their lives with ideas of little green aliens coming to Earth and taking over. But the military people all approach this with the certainty that aliens do not exist. There is no such thing as flying saucers or creatures from distant worlds. Allen is the only one who even entertains the notion that we aren't alone in the universe. That means he clashes with the people he is now suppose to be working with. That makes this a very dysfunctional investigative series. It wants to play things to the truth of the struggle. This wasn't an easy job for Allen to embark on and try to get people to see what's practical with the present technology. But again, the show struggles when it comes to making the audience care about any of this.

There are so many conspiracies that are going on throughout this season. At first, this presents as an episodic series. Every episode will see Allen and Quinn go to some part of the country where people have reported seeing UFOs or experiencing strange phenomenon. That list includes pilots engaging with strange lights in the sky, a ship crash landing and a monstrous alien emerging, ships seemingly knocking out power, people hearing things after alleged alien encounters, etc. The show remains very cynical about these ideas. It enjoys the notion of just labeling people as crazy or oblivious. Quinn has simple responses for everything that the team investigates. He loves quoting unscheduled test flights as the reason for why the people below are so frightened of invasion. That's exactly what the generals want as well. They want those types of stories out there to assure the public that they have no reason to be worried. One episode even features a mass mob forming and turning against one of their own for apparently making up her experience. And yet, there are some strong connective threads throughout this season as well. Some of these cases do carry over as Allen takes them home with him. This new job drastically changes his relationship with his wife, Mimi (Laura Mennell). She is suddenly home alone with their son, Joel, a lot more. Allen is keeping secrets from her. She is upset and can see that he is visibly shaken by what he has experienced. Moreover, the show wants the characters to feel like they are being watched in every single moment. That amplifies the paranoia significantly. And yet, if everything is done in that perspective, then it really doesn't become special or unique in an engaging way at all.

That's the fundamental problem with Project Blue Book as well. It wants to open the minds of its viewers for what's possible in the universe and what is just science fiction created by our imaginations. But it doesn't quite know how to balance its '50s esthetic with a modern-day sensibility. It aspires to suggest that some technology that isn't available now may actually have been possible over 60 years ago. It's nonsense and makes it unclear just how much of the overall narrative is based on the true-life events. A lot of it seems made for this particular medium. That presents Allen as a rogue investigator who needs to get to the truth. He is aided on that mission by a group of mysterious individuals in hats who seem to pop up whenever some big breakthroughs need to occur that may potentially open his mind further. It's weird. It's actually the show withholding information from the audience in order to create suspense. That's lame. It means that there is a bunch of talking around a certain plot point instead of actually dealing with it. That means that Harney and McDonough are asked to be nothing more than one-note, mustache-twirling antagonists. There's nothing here to suggest that these are desirable roles for either of them. Even the partnership between Allen and Quinn fells stiff a lot of the time with the two going back and forth on who is pressing the other to dig deeper with any given investigation. There is a lack of consistency and clarity in the early going. As such, the season may be building to some grand reveal that makes it all worth it by the end. As of right now though, I can't say whether it's worth waiting in the hopes that it will get to that point sooner rather than later.