The National Treasure films weren’t good by any conventional definition of the word, but they were fun. After all who doesn’t love a globe-hopping treasure hunt—especially when it comes wrapped in a conspiracy and painted over with a few layers of historical significance? Just ask Indiana Jones. Or Tom Hanks in that Da Vinci thing. These clue-dropping treasure hunts aren’t something episodic television has had much luck recreating. But ABC’s new thriller “Zero Hour” certainly gives it the old college try. And if the pilot episode is any indication, the network might have something halfway decent on its hands.
Remove balding Nicolas Cage from National Treasure and insert bald Anthony Edwards, replace the Founding Fathers with Nazis, sub out the Masonic symbolism for Rosicrucian symbolism, and you’ve got the basic road map for “Zero Hour.” The show begins with a cracking flashback to pre-World War II Europe. The Nazis are taking over Germany, and a group of mysterious clockmakers at a Catholic cathedral are working feverishly to complete a set of elaborate timepieces. Why? Well it has something to do with the mysterious hoobajoob hidden in the church’s basement, something this secret organization wants desperately to keep out of Nazi hands.
Flash forward to modern-day New York. Anthony Edwards (“ER”) shows up in the form of Hank Galliston, the editor of a Skeptical Enquirer-style magazine. One weird day, his wife gets kidnapped by a looney European terrorist (Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist from Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol). The FBI takes a keen interest in the case. Why would Mrs. Galliston, a simple restorer of antique clocks, be involved with a European terrorist? Hank quickly deduces it has something to do with an old mantle clock she just purchased. Inside, he finds a tiny diamond imprinted with a strange map. Encouraged by a couple of his conspiracy-loving reporters, Hank starts following the map, hoping to find the terrorist and/or his missing wife.
“Zero Hour” moves at a zippy pace, sending its characters around New York, up to the Arctic Circle and out to rural Germany. There’s a bit of flashy location work, most of which will get cost-prohibitive as the season wears on. But if producers can keep up a portion of these thrills each week, “Zero Hour” will give viewers some breathless fun.
The plot is decently paced, keeping most of its secrets close to the vest, but spilling just enough to keep us interested. By the end of the pilot, we’ve been treated to end-of-the-world prophesies, 80-year-old Nazi plots, immortal assassins, a Biblical cabal of secret-keeping apostles, a whole lot of clocks and a head-spinner of a twist ending. None of the characters are particularly compelling, and the dialogue is mostly generic, but that’s not what drives this sort of thing. It’s all about the conspiracy. With just the pilot, it’s hard to guess where “Zero Hour” could go. Let this sort of detail-heavy, mystery-laden story go on too long and you end up with far too many loose ends (like “Lost”). Cut it too short, and you fail to develop your premise. (Look at “The River.”) Cancel it due to low ratings and you get nothing. (Anybody remember “The Event”? Didn’t think so.)
So far the best that can be said of “Zero Hour” is that it’s intriguing. You’ll know by the head-scratching end of the first episode whether you want to devote your time to learning its secrets. How worthwhile those secrets will be, only time will tell.