“The Event”

Patrick Ecclesine/NBC

In the return of NBC’s paranormal puzzler — the latest contender for the “Lost” throne — the scheduling is as confusing as its plot.

When NBC’s big fall series The Event premiered, it came out to what were characterized as “generally favorable” reviews. In a post-Lost world, it was pretty clear some show had to fill the void of serialized paranormal behavior, and Event was touted as the next contender (succeeding ABC’s FlashForward, which fizzled last season). Not unlike the “I Want to Believe” poster in Fox Mulder’s office on The X-Files, viewers and even critics really do want to believe in something bigger — a story full of mystery, suspense and thrills that is another world removed from, say, Law & Order. For a certain kind of viewer, there is a thirst for a serialized drama that slowly puts together a complicated puzzle. What few networks and cable channels seem to get is how important it is to schedule such a show properly.

This should be of particular interest and worry to viewers awaiting two new series, Terra Nova on Fox and Falling Skies on TNT. (Both have a Steven Spielberg lineage.) Terra Nova arrives in May on the last day of the so-called TV season, in one of those galling previews where you get the pilot then have to wait until September for the rest of the series to kick in. (It worked out fine for Glee, which is why Fox is retrying the plan.) Falling Skies comes in June. Both shows looked intriguing in clips shown to television critics in January.

And yet, if either stumble-starts like Event, forget it. The show premiered Sept. 20 to a healthy 11 million viewers and ran six weeks straight, took one forgivable week off, then returned for another four weeks until Nov. 29. The trouble is, a month into the run, Event had lost about half its viewers, but NBC gave it a full-season pickup a week earlier anyway (the people who did that have since been fired).

Now Event has been off the air a full 14 weeks. In the world of serialized shows, such a long break is the kiss of death. NBC was going to bring it back a week sooner but decided to wait until March 7. Why not? Nobody remembers what’s happening on the damned show anyway. You could bring it back with a live, all-nude episode, and it still wouldn’t get a decent rating.

These kinds of shows need to be scheduled in the same manner that ABC and Fox eventually scheduled Lost and 24, two big serialized hits that stayed that way mostly because they didn’t premiere until January and were able to air all of their episodes nearly uninterrupted until the end of the season. No interminable wait. None of this hokey “winter finale” business.

As for Event, the start was intensely confusing, with time-lines jumping back and forth, but pretty soon one thing did become clear: The show wasn’t very good. It stars Jason Ritter as Sean, whose girlfriend, Leila (Sarah Roemer), vanishes just as he’s about to propose to her on a cruise. In Sean’s crazed pursuit of her, he accidentally uncovers what NBC calls “the biggest cover-up in U.S. history.” Viewers eventually learned that the cover-up involves a bunch of aliens who crashed in the U.S. 66 years ago, led by Sophia (Laura Innes), who befriends the U.S. president (Blair Underwood). The aliens are good people, she says, and they just want to go home. (They don’t age, which is a nice trick.)

The trouble with Event is that, despite the use of aliens and government conspiracies of the deepest order, the intrigue never really hooks you. Ritter and Roemer don’t give you much faith that they can save the world from whatever deep, dark fate is out there — and NBC says it’s out there, but 10 episodes in, all we’ve really got are good aliens who have found out that not all of them are good. So if you’re counting at home, it’s a little bit of 24, a little bit of Lost, a little bit of Star Wars, a little bit of, well, a lot of things. But lackluster writing and wince-inducing acting simply can’t make that hodgepodge of influences work quite right.

Having watched the two new hours that comprise the special, ahem, relaunch, those problems have not been adequately addressed. Event is still a chore to watch.

But one day a truly deserving, richly textured and creatively challenging new sci-fi series will arrive, and critics and viewers can only hope the networks or cable channels will be smart enough to schedule it with care.

Otherwise, it’ll get Lost.

Airdate 9-11 p.m., Monday, March 7 (NBC)