The single-season program was first aired on June 7, 2010 on NBC. The season, which lasted thirteen episodes, was swiftly cancelled after failing to gain enough viewers. Notably, the show was produced by Televisa, a Mexican production company, and was one of the first collaborations between the two entities.
The show centered around a group of abducted strangers who awoke in a 1950’s desert town riddled with hidden cameras, where they soon realized escape was impossible and psychological torture was the name of the game. Our “main character”, San Franciscan single mother Janet Cooper and her attempt to return to her daughter is the focus of the season. Her abduction early in the pilot and subsequent investigation by journalist Mark Renbe are vital points of the show’s progression, as the audience follows the mystery as Renbe (who happens to be Janet’s AWOL ex-husband) discovers more information about her disappearance. Renbe transforms from absentee father to hero, yet still retaining qualities of the anti-hero, while dragging along his reluctant yet righteous reporter girlfriend.
There are seven abductees that all wake up in their own rooms in an abandoned hotel, not remembering anything about their arrival. Janet, Joe Tucker, Moira Doherty, Sergeant Graham McNair, Tori Fairchild, Bill Blackham, and Charlie Morse all have secrets but have no clue as to why they were taken. Ransom is not what keeps them trapped, as Charlie asserts that he is worth nearly $80 million dollars. The Town is surrounded by a military-grade “microwave” barrier, or force-field, preventing anyone leaving while inflicting excruciating radiation on one’s skin. Attempts to dig their way out through an underground tunnel are stopped by metal barriers, and secret exits used by the Chinese food staff is entirely inaccessible to them.
The investigation into Janet’s disappearance leads Renbe to link her disappearance with those who are imprisoned with her, namely the daughter of Italian ambassador, Victoria Fairchild. Fairchild is convinced her father placed her there as punishment for acting out against him after being used as a companion to gain political leverage. She seems to be the only one with any inkling of why she is there; however, she later pleads to be released and is taken from The Town. Her body is found in a fountain in Rome, and Renbe sees her death on the news. Bill is shown a video clip of Charlie murdering his wife by smothering her with a pillow, which he uses to blackmail Charlie into certain actions. Moira confesses that she used to be in a mental ward, pretending to be ill so she wouldn’t have to stay with her parents. Joe, however, is the most secretive of the bunch, and it is finally revealed (first to the viewer) that he has been working with their unknown captors the entire time, and has in fact participated in such an experiment before. In the previous case, Joe was the sole survivor of the group, who all turned on one another in an attempt to escape The Town. A former priest, Joe fully believes in the Institute’s mission as “trying to do good” and reveals that similar setups (towns, abductees) has been occurring for over 50 years.
The persons who abducted our protagonists are constantly watching and toying with them. Individualized gifts and tokens are placed in everyone’s rooms, such as childhood items believed to be long-lost, making this entire ordeal seem as if it were in motion for decades. As we follow Renbe, we learn that this is indeed part of an international conspiracy that blackmails Ambassador Fairchild and can make people disappear with not a single trace. The Mansfield Institute created towns all over the globe in undeveloped areas in efforts to implement “The Program”. The Institute, whose motives remain unclear, supposedly aimed to influence the actions of its abductees in a perverse experiment on how to control the human psyche. Its existence is touted as a think tank “devoted to peace and progress”. This is evidenced by the reintroduction of Victoria both as a nurse torturing Joe, and as the new night manager of the hotel at the end of the final episode, having been indoctrinated into The Program.
With Victoria replaced by Erika, and with Joe revealed as a member of The Program, the group eventually uses the cameras against their captors by faking attacks on one another to leave Joe as the sole survivor. With their bodies thrown into body-bags and being escorted out of the town, the abductees overpower the driver and continue their escape. Flashforwards to the future show that the group has split into smaller groups to escape unnoticed. Renbe and Joe are seen waking up in their own hotel room with a new set of abductees, where Victoria introduces herself as the night manager. Notably, Joe takes on his role in The Program, reminiscent of his scenes in the pilot – but to his surprise Renbe, who recognizes the former priest from his arduous investigation, quickly calls him out on his lie. Renbe’s girlfriend has been abducted and thrown into a cage, where she sees Ambassador Fairchild in a similar cage. The escaped group sans Joe are seen waking up in an identical hotel that has been built into the hull of a large ship, where the camera zooms out to show that they are seemingly in the middle of whatever vast body of water the Institute chose.
While the actors’ performances were decent enough, I personally could not fully fall in love with the characters. This is partially due to the format of the show, and partially due to their personal stories. These abductees were generally sketchy people – Erika clearly in jail for one reason or another, Graham became a gunman for hire, etc. Additionally, overtones of abuse – not just sexual (ie. Victoria Fairchild and Blackham’s general sleaziness), but clear emotional and mental abuse made me uncomfortable. Janet, and now her daughter, are shown to be chastised by Janet’s notably creepy mother, whom she is clearly afraid of. Perhaps this, along with abandonment issues with Renbe, explains some of Janet’s blind-faith in Joe, which was called into question repeatedly by the now members of the group. While left unresolved, these issues come off as a form of self-aware Stockholm syndrome, notably with Blackham’s insistence on staying in the town since they’re “living the life”. This all ignores the glaringly obvious issue of voyeurism, while important to the plot, is nonetheless disturbing. In a laughable mistake in a scene in Episode 7, there is a shot of crew in the mirror of the bathroom.
The show was presented as a mini-series, yet the finale had enough substance to launch a potential second season. The final scene on the barge is haunting, as no matter what our abductees try, they will never escape from the Mansfield Institute. Overall, the show was interesting and well-paced despite my lack of attachment to most of the characters. The premise should make one uncomfortable, and while the idea that people can disappear without a trace is disturbing, it is reflective of the real world.
I would definitely recommend this show to fans of thrillers and mysteries. The whole series is currently on Netflix instant watch.