Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky uses hypnotic powers to convince you to watch this show. And that you are a high school cheerleader. Now—form a pyramid!
Our review of Nowhere Man (2004), published August 1st, 2005, is also available.
"This isn't reality! They did this! They set this up!"—Tom Veil (Bruce Greenwood) to Dr. Bellamy (Michael Tucker), "Absolute Zero"
In those early, heady days at United Paramount Network, creativity and invention were valued. The fledgling net was willing to take chances. But for every breakout show like Buffy, there were a dozen promising shows that ended up on the dustheap of television history. Shows like Legend, Seven Days, The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer. Ok, maybe that last one deserved it. But few of these lost shows built up quite the mystique of Nowhere Man. Was it really that good, or is your memory playing tricks on you?
Facts of the Case
His name is Thomas Veil (Bruce Greenwood, Thirteen Days), or at least it was. He's a photographer. He had it all: a wife, Alyson (Meghan Gallagher, Millennium), friends, a career. And in one moment it was all taken away—all because of a single photograph. He has it, they want it, and they will do anything to get the negative. We're reviewing this television series as proof that these events are real. We know they are. They have to be…
I was quite fond of Nowhere Man when it originally ran on UPN back in 1995. And I enjoyed watching it again on this well-appointed DVD set. But I do not think of it as a "lost classic" or brood about it being "cruelly neglected." It is a solid and entertaining thriller. Not much more.
Oh, sure, creator Lawrence Hertzog would have you believe that the show offers some profound insight into the nature of identity. Not really. The whole loss-of-identity issue is a plot conceit meant to generate tension, which it often does effectively. The show rarely gets deep enough to get all philosophical. In spite of its pretensions, it is not The Prisoner.
The comparison to Patrick McGoohan's classic 60s mindwarp is perfectly fair. Hertzog brings it up plenty of times. In fact, the mandate from UPN when Hertzog and then-executive Mike Sullivan sat down to develop the series (or so according to the interview included in this set) was to create a Prisoner-type show. And Hertzog mentions that earlier series at least a dozen times on the commentary tracks. What Hertzog rarely mentions—and I will talk about this more in a moment—is how much his series was also indebted to the popularity of The Fugitive, which had recently been resurrected as a theatrical feature.
While no one can justifiably argue that Nowhere Man is terribly original, it does rise above many other experimental 90s shows. By anchoring Veil's adventures in a believable political and social arena (quite the opposite of what Hertzog intended, ironically), the show is able to keep its "vast conspiracies control my life" paranoia from getting silly. Putting Veil in a realistic world (apart from the occasional espionage trappings) and parceling out the clues steadily, the show has forward momentum.
What Hertzog forgot about The Prisoner was that Patrick McGoohan kept that series deliberately short (still, he was obliged to make nearly twice the number of episodes he really wanted to make). Any longer, and people would have demanded some closure. Plus, the dreamlike quality of the show made its constant evasions acceptable. Hertzog insisted on connecting Veil's erasure to a specific object—the "Hidden Agenda" photo—which places Veil's story in a specific social context: American power exercised both home and abroad. Because of this, we expect the show to get more specific, to answer questions, and eventually to show the exercise of justice—root out the bad guys and expose the conspiracy. In The Prisoner, it was not only never clear who or what the conspiracy was, there were times during which we were not sure there even was a conspiracy. We never doubt the presence of a conspiracy in Nowhere Man. Not for a moment.
The paranoia is laid out in the 90-minute series pilot, "Absolute Zero," directed with a slightly surreal flair by Tobe Hooper. Investigative photojournalist Thomas Veil debuts his latest works, including a muckraking photo called "Hidden Agenda" which depicts a brutal act of U.S. military aggression in a Latin American country. But that evening, Veil gets up from the restaurant table where he and his wife are enjoying dinner, goes to the restroom, and comes out to find his entire life has been erased. His wife denies she knows him. His studio has been looted. His ATM card doesn't work (an American nightmare to be sure). And he quickly finds himself dragged off to a mental institution.
Bruce Greenwood's performance as Veil is somewhat rough in the pilot, as he never seems quite shaken enough by the tipping-over of his life, but as he gets a better handle on the character throughout the season, Greenwood does become the anchor of the show. No matter what insidious plan the Organization, as it comes to be known, concocts to get those negatives, Veil remains stalwart and heroic.
There are really two kinds of Nowhere Man stories for the first half of the show's single season. Hertzog's original plan was to create more of an anthology show, with no mounting revelations and a new adventure for Veil each week. His models here, as noted earlier, are clearly The Prisoner and The Fugitive. And you can identify many of the episodes by which model they follow. For example, in "Something About Her," Tom is subjected to a dream-manipulation experiment in which he has an affair with a woman (a local actress reading into a microphone which Tom dreams under the effects of drugs)—in an effort to coax him into revealing the negatives, as usual. Sound familiar? This is pretty much the plot of "A, B, & C," a Prisoner episode. In "It's Not Such a Wonderful Life," the Organization gives Tom his life back briefly as a sort of Christmas present, just like Number 6 got for his birthday in "Many Happy Returns." In "Paradise on Your Doorstep," Tom visits a "village" (get it?) of people erased by the Organization. We know it must be evil: they have mimes living there. In "The Spider Webb," Tom watches a television show that matches the events of his life word for word. Hmm, do you think its producer works for the Organization? These and other episodes feature Tom Veil getting directly manipulated by the Organization in an effort to get him to turn over those precious negatives.
The other kind of Nowhere Man story for the first half of the season is more like The Fugitive: Tom Veil visits a town where he must help some desperate person before he is forced to flee again. In "A Rough Whimper of Insanity," the desperate soul is an introverted computer geek. In "The Incredible Derek," he is a psychic boy. In "The Alpha Spike," Tom solves a murder in stuffy military school. Stop me if you've heard this plot before, for "An Enemy Within:" Tom is injured while camping on corporate land and is nursed back to health by a pretty girl. Her town is fighting against a big corporation. Tom must help the townspeople beat the evil agribusiness conglomerate, as he falls in love with the pretty girl. How many Fugitive episodes (and western movies) have this plot?
By the season's midpoint, the executives at UPN were starting to push for the show to find some direction. While Hertzog was able to keep them at bay for a while by waving the show's critical praise and solid ratings in their faces, eventually he acquiesced to allowing short story arcs to enter the series. And so Tom gets an ally, a defector within the Organization who feeds Tom information for a few episodes starting mid-season. The change helps give the show new energy: now instead of Tom being on the run, he gets to thwart Organization trickery and play hero. For example, in "Heart of Darkness," Tom infiltrates a paramilitary group (where he is dubbed—wait for it—"number 6" during his initiation) which oddly does not require him to cut his luscious mane of hair. In "Shine a Light on You," he infiltrates a secret project that uses UFO sightings as a smokescreen to cover its—well, this episode did not make a whole lot of sense. Actually, this whole arc turns the show—not inappropriately—into more of a spy adventure than Hertzog apparently wanted. But it does steer us away from the exhausting pattern of "let's mess with Veil again this week" and allow the hero to be proactive rather than reactive. Not that he is even trying to hide from them by this point: he wanders from town to town announcing that his name is Tom Veil.
One of the unusual things about Nowhere Man's short life is that, as continuity-heavy as the show became (again, apparently against the wishes of its creator), its final arc—of which I will understandably say little here—manages to unravel the first season's key plot points in such a way that it not only would have easily led the show into a second season, but it also acts as a solid finale to the series as a whole. This was never intended, of course. In their final commentary track, Hertzog and co-producer/co-writer Art Monterastelli admit that they are disappointed with the show's final arc and the series ending as a whole. I disagree with them: the final act of the show is where Nowhere Man really started to develop its own flavor beyond homages to earlier shows. But not many other people feel—or felt at the time—the same way. Nowhere Man was performing well for UPN, when the network suits decided that they liked neither the direction of the show or their primetime lineup as a whole. And so they erased Tom Veil once again.
But the show was hard to forget for those who did get a chance to watch it during its original run. And so, since it is almost impossible to really erase anything from the American cultural memory anymore, thanks to companies trying to stuff the shelves with more product to buy, Nowhere Man is back. Apart from Veil's very 90s flannel and that haircut (if I were the Organization, I'd just stake out all the hairstylists—you'd find Veil in minutes), Nowhere Man looks remarkably timely. Its political message is still relevant, and its style generates suspense without gratuitous flash.
Image Entertainment clearly wants to do right by this series. They have spread its 25 episodes over 9 discs, so that the transfer quality remains excellent. Each disc features an audio commentary for one episode (9 commentaries total), featuring various combinations of the crew, including Bruce Greenwood, Lawrence Hertzog, and several producers, writers, and directors. Oddly, although a sticker on the package touts this show's connection to current television hit 24, the primary link, Joel Surnow (who served as a producer and sometime writer on Nowhere Man) is absent. Also noticeably missing here is pilot director Tobe Hooper, even though his contributions to the look of the series are praised continuously by all concerned. Sharp viewers will also notice actors like Richard Kind, Maria Bello, Carrie Ann Moss, and Hal Linden turn up in episodes. Watch as well for a nicely paranoid late-series episode penned by future Joss Whedon stalwart Jane Espenson.
For viewers not willing to wade through the complete commentaries, some episodes feature "video commentary," which really consists of abridged versions of the audio commentary track, but you get to watch a camera trained on the participants while they watch the episode. There are also additional interviews on each disc. All in all, you will get to hear everyone repeat the same thoughts many times: how much of a grind the show was for Greenwood, how much Hertzog loves The Prisoner, how much the producers wanted the show to resist having an arc but the network insisted.
Several of the discs are also dotted with episode promos and rough-cut footage of extended scenes. The final disc throws in some general series promos, along with outtakes of Greenwood doing affiliate-specific plugs for the show. There are also two additional interview segments. On the first, Lawrence Hertzog sits down with former UPN executive Mike Sullivan for an interesting chat about network politics (the real Organization). The second features a self-proclaimed CIA covert ops veteran (shown in silhouette, of course) who talks about government mind control programs. Bring your own tinfoil hat. An unadvertised feature, for DVD-ROM only, is a complete set of episode scripts and what appear to be random pages (in PDF format) from a promotional Q&A done before the show's debut.
Image has done a fine job bringing this entertaining thriller back to light. And they were probably correct when they slapped that little sticker on the front of the box: if you enjoy 24, you will probably like this as well. But if you are a big fan of The Prisoner and heard that this was its American equivalent, you will probably find this show rarely actually tries to ascend to that level.
While The Prisoner worked on many levels, in part because of its allegorical feel, Nowhere Man has no philosophical pretenses, nor does Hertzog seem to have McGoohan's bitter sense of humor. The show is a thriller. It is a good thriller, and its self-contained nature makes it a natural for DVD. But it is not the neglected classic some have said. If The Prisoner is lobster in a fancy restaurant, Nowhere Man is a decent meal at Red Lobster. But that is still much better than a Filet-O-Fish sandwich any time.
This court orders all secret testimony related to the case of Thomas Veil to be unsealed immediately. Image is commended for bringing this important case before the public.
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