Agents Mulder and Scully weren’t the first people on TV to ever investigate mysteries of a supernatural/scientific variety. “X-Files” creator Chris Carter admittedly borrowed a lot of his inspiration from investigative reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) in the early ’70s TV series “The Night Stalker.” Ever since “The X-Files” premiered in 1993, though, the intrepid FBI agents played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have served as the template for nearly every genre-based team up on TV. J.H. Wyman—an executive producer, writer, director and showrunner on such FOX sci-fi series as “Fringe” and “Almost Human”—doesn’t do much to buck that trend. His newest effort, NBC’s “Debris” offers up a couple of mismatched federal agents trying to get to the bottom of their own outer space conspiracy. While the newly debuted show has yet to conjure up the addictive genre-based qualities of “The X-Files,” it might serve as a decent placebo for those still feeling the aftereffects of withdrawal from that long-running FOX hit.
“Debris” doesn’t waste a lot of time setting up its premise, dismissing all of the usual pilot episode buildup in a two-sentence chyron before the opening credits. On the one hand, it’s a bit jarring being dropped into the thick of the story. On the other hand, its kind of nice to dispense with the usual introductory beating around the bush and get right to the action. Those cold open cards inform us that a massive alien spaceship broke up in orbit over Earth, and superpowered extraterrestrial debris has been raining down on our planet for months. Any questions? Too bad. We’re moving on.
Tasked with hunting down this unearthly junk are American CIA operative Bryan Beneventi (Jonathan Tucker from “The Black Donnellys,” “Parenthood,” “Justified” and “City on a Hill”) and British MI6 agent Finola Jones (Riann Steele, who last showed up in Season 5 of “The Magicians”). Like its premise, the characters of “Debris” don’t get a lot of setup. In a weird way, Episode 1 of “Debris” feels like Episode 3 of any other TV show. This would work better if the show’s scriptwriters didn’t fall back on some superficial writing and a lot of melodramatic emotion. (“In the wrong hands, it could be the end of humanity,” one character helpfully hammers home for us.) As it stands, the show’s “cut to the case” style pretty much confirms that we’re dealing with a lot of familiar and easy-to-digest elements.
Both of our leads are serious, slate-faced government operatives. He’s made out to be the pessimistic one. (As a former soldier in Afghanistan, he just wants to keep the debris from falling into the hands of “the bad guys.”) She’s made out to be the optimistic one. (Her late father was a world-famous astrophysicist, and she views the strangely powered debris as a “gift” to humanity.) Other than that, the show hints at a lot of deep and meaningful backstory—which, so far, consists of the leads frequently getting teary eyed and staring off into space, lips a-tremble, as they recall that unspoken episode/event that happened to them/their family/their deceased loved ones back in … (flashback pending). Hollywood loves a detailed backstory, and it’s nearly impossible to find a movie or TV character these days who doesn’t have some deep, dark secret that coincidentally ties directly into whatever plot they stumble into. How deeply “Debris” develops its emo-style character traits probably depends on how long the show survives and how many more empathetic tragedies it needs to manufacture for its main characters. (My brother was also blind! I suffer from PTSD as well! My wife was murdered by Hannibal Lecter too!)
As far as the sci-fi action goes, “Debris” sets up the usual, weekly, episodic mysteries while teasing the expected, overarching, hidden conspiracy behind it all. The idea is that the various, scattered chunks of metal that made up that alien ship are all imbued with inconceivable powers, which they grant and/or inflict on a string of unsuspecting humans. Teleportation, anti-gravity, electromagnetism and ghosts have already made an appearance. So far, it looks like the debris can do just about anything—which, at least, gives writers plenty of leeway to come up with fantastical plot devices. As expected, it’s up to Beneventi and Jones to travel the globe tracking down the fallen bits, rescuing the unfortunate folks who have stumbled across them and securing everything from the nebulous forces of evil who are lurking in the shadows waiting to exploit this dangerous E.T. tech. Naturally, the Brits don’t trust the Americans, and the Americans don’t trust the Brits. This sets up a decent, slow-simmering conflict in which their two governments constantly tell their agents not to get too close to one another. (Hopefully, this means they’ll avoid the standard-issue romantic entanglement as well.)
Although “Debris” doesn’t build up much sense of mystery behind the source of its magical events, it offers plenty of puzzles for viewers to contemplate. Who are the baddies competing for control of the debris? Does this alien tech have some kind of purpose? Did it end up on Earth for a reason? And what are the (ostensibly friendly) government bigwigs going to do with it once they’ve assembled it all? Network TV has struggled stretching big sci-fi mysteries out over multiple seasons (“Lost,” “Threshold,” “The 4400,” “The Event,” “FlashForward,” “Manifest”). Hopefully, like “The X-Files” before it, “Debris” will succeed by balancing the desire for deep, overall mythology with the need for clean, weekly storytelling.
“Debris” airs Mondays at 9pm on KOB-4.