Zero Hour debuts tonight on ABC at 8 p.m. Eastern.
The first five minutes of Zero Hour feature Nazis, mystical Christians, a pale-eyed and evil baby, and a young man saying that the construction of a clock cannot be rushed when told he must build the clock faster—faster! It’s like a perfect storm of TV crazy, and it’s so wonderful that fans of a particular kind of serialized TV—a kind of serialized TV that goes so far over-the-top that it becomes a kind of terrible that lands very close to greatness, a kind of serialized TV that includes the runs of Happy Town, The Cape, and the gladiator prison season of Prison Break—are probably going to say, “Holy shit! This is the new show for me!” Sad to say, the rest of the episode doesn’t quite live up to that utter insanity, but it comes close often enough to make it worth watching. In short: This is some entertaining shit. You should watch the pilot for Zero Hour, even though it might be the worst piece of TV you see all year. (Okay, that’s not really fair; Cult is coming next week.)
The reason Zero Hour loses some of the giddy lunacy from its opening moments is because it cuts from the Nazis with their evil babies to modern-day New York City, complete with indie rock soundtrack. It’s taken the audience here because it wants to introduce viewers to its main characters, who, frankly, don’t make a lick of goddamn sense. Anthony Edwards—a terrific actor who’s never better than when there’s the potential for goofiness to break out all around him and he’s keeping a grim face in the midst of it—plays a man named Hank Galliston. Hank appears to run a weird variation on Fortean Times, in that his magazine does its best to debunk conspiracy theories and paranormal phenomenon. In the weirdest thing in the pilot—and, remember, this is a pilot with an evil Nazi baby with pale eyes—Hank’s magazine appears to be far, far more successful than Time. In 1945. He has a couple of loyal employees who are deeply entwined in every aspect of his life, and an apparently endless research budget. The public of Zero Hour, apparently, really enjoys reading bromides about how werewolves aren’t real.
Anyway, because Hank doesn’t believe in crazy bullshit and this is television, Hank is going to come up against something so crazy that he’s forced to believe in literally anything somebody tells him. What happens is that his wife, Laila (Jacinda Barrett), a humble woman who is but a clock-shop owner (a description surprisingly similar to one Hank gives later in the episode), is kidnapped for no apparent reason. The reason, of course, has to do with the antique clock she picked up at what appears to be an antiques swap meet she attends with her husband. (Everybody in the show treats Hank and Laila like they are rough contemporaries, despite the fact that they are obviously at least a decade apart in age.) Somebody wants that clock, and they’re willing to kill—or, rather, kidnap—to get it. Fortunately, Laila left the clock at the couple’s home. Can Hank decipher its secrets in time to rescue his wife, or at least open up a season-spanning mystery that will offer us all hours of fun?
Here’s the part where things get tricky. All I want to do is spoil every goddamn thing that happens in Zero Hour, because watching the thing is like slowly descending into a Magic Eye painting where all of the little dots are Anthony Edwards faces, and after you’ve stared at it long enough, one, giant Anthony Edwards face arises out of it to greet you. It’s a show that wants you to believe in the inherent menace of clocks. It concludes—and I don’t think this is much of a spoiler, but who the fuck knows with this show?—with a lengthy monologue from an old German man who says the word “clock” so many times and in such magnificently menacing tones that I never wanted it to end. My favorite is when he intones, “Youuuuu mussssst fiiiind zeeeeeez clahhhhcks!” to the people he’s speaking to. The evil Nazi baby comes back. Immortality is mentioned. There’s a treasure map hidden in an unexpected place (immediately after Hank tells us treasure maps aren’t real like he’s talking about the Loch Ness Monster). Also, Charles S. Dutton turns up as a kindly priest who knows a surprising amount about dead languages and says the word “Rosicrucians” a lot, in between talking about Hank and Laila’s wedding.
What’s astounding about this is that it’s actually slightly better than the original pilot ABC sent out to critics last summer. There’s been some tightening, and some moments that aim to explain some of the show’s batshittery in a slightly more coherent fashion. (There’s also been a marked improvement to the sound mix. In the original, the closing monologue was basically indecipherable over the booming score, so there was exciting footage of what was happening, with a super loud score, and all the while a mumbling German who occasionally said the word “CLAHCKS!” loud and clear and out of nowhere. It was fucking awesome.) Sadly, this attempt at sharpening and tightening the show has mostly just taken away the thing that made the original pilot so great: its complete and utter conviction in its own zaniness. Now, the plot almost makes sense, and outside of the opening and closing minutes, the show has moments when it lapses from “entertainingly terrible” to just “terrible.”
Fortunately, the show still has one trick in its arsenal: None of its characters behave like any human beings who have ever lived or will ever live. At the top of the list are Addison Timlin and Scott Michael Foster as Hank’s reporters, who apparently have nothing better to do than get involved in every aspect of their boss’ marriage and life and spend much of the pilot acting like they’re in a Bad News Bears remake as the spunky kids who take over a flailing anti-conspiracy theory magazine and turn it around through sheer gumption. (At one point, Hank admonishes them to not take any research trips while he’s off doing something else, because he wants them safe in Brooklyn—utterly ignoring that his wife was just kidnapped from same—and it’s like he’s the crusty old dean in one of the college movies Homer Simpson based his life philosophy around in that episode where he went to college.) There’s also a police officer played by Carmen Ejogo, who puts her life on hold, pretty much just ‘cuz. (Actually, she has a motivation, but it’s so hilarious that I won’t spoil it here.) Michael Nyqvist turns up as the Big Bad, but a really incompetent one, who’s helped only by the fact that everybody else in the pilot is even worse off on the competence scale.
It feels weird to say that a TV show isn’t terrible enough, but that’s the ultimate impression Zero Hour leaves at its end. It hails from Paul Scheuring, the man behind the aforementioned Prison Break, and if there’s a writer in TV who could turn this calliope of catastrophe into an enjoyably idiotic TV narrative, it’s him. At the Television Critics Association winter press tour, Scheuring said that his dream for the show is to wrap up this story in season one, then have Hank investigate some new conspiracy—perhaps also involving evil Nazi babies and magic clocks?—in season two, so if this show were really as bad as its worst moments, I’d be all in for a full season of that sort of bullshit, if only because I would know I would get some payoff. Instead, there’s the possibility that this just turns into a bland chase story, with Hank just a step behind Laila’s captors until the finale. Is it weird to be disappointed by that idea? Is it weird to want even more evil babies and Rosicrucians and long monologues about clocks? Because in those moments, Zero Hour is transcendently terrible; now the question is: Can it keep it up?