‘Zero Hour’: Is This the Dumbest Show Ever to Air on TV?

Jace Lacob on ABC’s ‘Zero Hour,’ a ridiculous hour that just might be the dumbest ever on television.

Phillippe Bosse/ABC

Ever since Lost went off the air—and, actually, before—the broadcast networks have desperately searched for a show that could tempt viewers eager to get, well, lost in the complexity, mythology, and mystery of the Damon Lindelof/Carlton Cuse drama.

Zero Hour is not that show.

The ABC drama, which begins Thursday night at 10 p.m., recalls fiascos like FlashForward more than Lost. Created by former Prison Break writer Paul Scheuring, Zero Hour is no valentine to television, offering up a ludicrous mash-up of overtly familiar tropes: doomsday devices, the birth of the Anti-Christ, secret societies, and a witch’s cauldron of yawn-inducing fare. Did I mention that there are also goose-stepping Nazis, clocks embedded with treasure maps, demon spawn, and enough nonsense to make The Da Vinci Code seem downright plausible?

The plot—and I use that term lightly—revolves around Hank (Anthony Edwards), the schlubby editor of a paranormal magazine (called Modern Skeptic, no less) whose wife, clock seller Laila (Jacinda Barrett), is kidnapped by a ruthless assassin on the FBI’s most wanted list as part of a conspiracy that involves the end of the world.

There’s also the appearance of 12 mystical clocks, constructed during the rise of the Nazis in Germany, and the Rosicrucians, a secret Catholic mystical sect said to be guarding some sort of device with the power to bring about “zero hour” for the planet. Hank sets out on a world-spanning mission (funded by whom?), heading for the Artic circle after discovering a diamond whose flaw is actually a map to something called “New Bartholomew” in an effort to find Laila and the man who took her.

That man, an internationally wanted assassin and ex-Foreign Legion baddy codenamed “White Vincent,” is played by Michael Nyqvist (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol), who was so brilliant as Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish-language version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels. I can’t help but feel as though Nyqvist is slumming it here, reduced to playing a mugging villain who is so on the nose that he might as well be twirling a pencil-thin mustache beneath it. Vincent has a penchant for loading a gun with a single bullet and putting it against Laila’s head, in an attempt to be both scary and unpredictable, and for scratching up cheap motel mirrors with the mechanical parts from clocks. Poor, poor Michael Nyqvist!

Hank, meanwhile, is joined on his quest by Rebecca Riley, an FBI agent/potential love interest played by Carmen Ejogo (Kidnapped) whose husband may have been killed by White Vincent, and by two young writers in his employ, Rachel (Addison Timlin) and Arron (Scott Michael Foster), whose enthusiasm about the treasure hunt of a lifetime is at odds with the fact that their boss’s wife has been kidnapped by a madman and may already be dead. “Goonies isn’t a B-movie,” Rachel tells Hank, arguing the finer points of 1980s cinema mere hours after his wife has been taken.

That’s but one groan-inducing moment in a pilot episode that is overflowing with wooden acting and creaky dialogue, not to mention an hour of exposition dumps that are intended to shroud everything in a patina of swirling mystery. An opening sequence, set in 1938 Germany as the Nazis storm a cathedral—under which lies the mysterious doomsday device—and celebrate the birth of an artificial baby with single black points for eyes (it’s demonic!), is the height of ludicrousness. Not helping matters: the fact that everyone speaks in unaccented American English. (Not a vote of confidence in the intelligence/attention span of your audience, ABC, when you can’t even be bothered to put the damn thing in German.)

Why Vincent goes after Laila and sets Hank on a series of false leads rather than, you know, searching his home or his office—where the treasure map is blown up as a series of photocopies on the wall—is unclear, and but one of the more unsatisfying elements to this show. ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee, famous for his ability to spin, talked up Zero Hour at the Television Critics Association winter press tour last month: “We think that’s going to be a big crowdpleaser, a big adventure show. It sort of touches on the zeitgeist of conspiracy, but it’s a very relatable story with Anthony Edwards, who is beloved in [this] country, chasing his lost and kidnapped wife, so we’re excited about that.”

Putting aside the “zeitgeist of conspiracy” sound byte, Lee’s words seem entirely hollow, particularly when viewing the pilot episode of Zero Hour, which tries for jigsaw-like intrigue but instead delivers cookie-cutter nonsense. And, yes, there have been and will be far worse shows than Zero Hour that make it onto the air. But Zero Hour represents a very scary nadir of creativity, an effort on the part of the broadcasters to go “big” in an effort to draw viewers back from the hinterlands of cable to the legacy networks.

It’s those networks that have confused “big” and “convoluted” with “creative” and “complex.” Those terms are not interchangeable, however. Lost started out as a seemingly straightforward plane crash drama, as the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 had to learn to adapt to their strange new reality. A few mysteries (a polar bear! that French distress beacon!) served to tweak the spider-sense of the viewer, but it focused its energies at first on establishing characters and dynamics. Zero Hour, like many of its fallen drama brethren, does the opposite, building layer after layer of false mystery around cardboard characters.

Which might be why Zero Hour offends as much as it does: it reads as a calculated attempt to woo viewers by promising flashy adventures and pseudo-mystical cults, but it delivers nothing more than stale schlock, an hour full of zeroes.