'Project Blue Book': TV Review

Will make you do your own research and miss Scully and Mulder.
1/8/2019

History's 1950s-set UFO investigation drama has a fascinating historical backdrop, but can't find that 'X-Files' balance of monster-of-the-week and mythology.

If you want to start an argument or debate among fans of The X-Files, one of the easiest triggers is to pit supporters of the stand-alone monster-of-the-week episodes against partisans of the twisted mythology episodes. Part of why the show's legacy is secure is because devotees on both sides can make compelling cases for their preference.

Surely the creators of History's new scripted drama Project Blue Book know the template that worked for The X-Files. They know that the balance between stand-alone and mythology episodes is crucial for a show like this and that, in an ideal world, their show would be able to excel on both sides. The clear recognition of the template is the thing that's most promising about Project Blue Book, even if the execution in the first six episodes offers neither satisfying stand-alone episodes nor any sort of mythology worth getting wrapped up in. It's a fun premise and little more.

Set in the early 1950s, the series is based on the real story of astrophysicist and college professor Josef Allen Hynek (Aidan Gillen), who spent decades working as part of the Air Force's titular program investigating UFO encounters and unexplained phenomena. For purposes of the show, he does this under the watch of Captain Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey), a veteran with a history of dark experiences in the military. Hynek's job is to get to the truth of each case, but only if the truth is an easy explanation that Quinn can feed to local authorities and press before reporting back to his own shady bosses (Neal McDonough's Harding and Michael Harney's Valentine), a pair of generals with their fingers in a conspiracy that I'm just going to assume goes all the way up to somewhere near the top.

Creator David O'Leary, part of a production team that includes Sean Jablonski and, most prominently, Robert Zemeckis, has a dauntingly fruitful real backdrop to work from here. The actual Project Blue Book collected more than 12,600 UFO reports between 1952 and 1970 and debunked almost all of them, because what else were they going to do? Admit the truth to the American people? And for his part, Hynek's perspective evolved from skepticism to a more committed and pragmatic belief that of the phenomena he was exploring, some couldn't be explained away as tricks of the light, military test flights or wayward birds and thus were probably real. Right there, you have both a structure for a regular weekly TV procedural — with 12,600 possible episodes! — and a built-in arc for your main character, one that could play out over multiple seasons. However, like CBS All Access' Strange Angel, reality giving you a great genre story isn't the same as making a great genre story.

The chief problem with Project Blue Book is that its main pairing is fictionalized, and fictionalized weakly. Maybe you think the Scully/Mulder binary is too clear and you want to muddy the waters. But Project Blue Book has such a hard time articulating Hynek and Quinn's respective ideologies that nearly every episode forces them to clarify the exact purpose of their jobs through a repetition in which Hynek is constantly debunking each case, then finding one loose end he needs to explore, and Quinn constantly has to stop him. Valentine and Harding are ever glowering in poorly lit war rooms warning Quinn that he was brought in to do a job and that Hynek may be on the verge of learning too much. And blah blah blah. Both Gillen and Malarkey give performances that are best suited to being fourth or fifth leads — Science Guy and Military Guy — in an investigative drama fronted by more dynamic and engaging characters. There's only so much one-note squinting and scowling I can take before I crave other colors.

For their part, both McDonough and Harney are perfect in their capacities as stern authority figures, and if you didn't know that both actors are capable of so many more distinctive variations on malevolence, you'd never quibble. I don't think you can have a good show with Gillen and Malarkey, at least in these characters, as your sole protagonists, but McDonough and Harney are serviceable pieces of a background military cabal. Oddly, the characters who offer the freshest subplot are also its most overtly bad, at least initially. Laura Mennell as Hynek's wife and Ksenia Solo as mysterious interloper Susie are constantly doing ludicrous things like visiting the silliest daytime beatnik bar in Ohio or constructing a fallout shelter without plans, yet in their interactions there is a pseudo-flirtation that, if nothing else, has the show's only stirring of passion.

The weekly plots are bloodless, even as they explore some notorious cases that are very real, including the Flatwoods Monster, the Lubbock Lights and, in the one episode I came closest to enjoying, the transplanting of German expat scientists to Alabama under the heading of Operation Paperclip. The key to a great X-Files stand-alone is that Scully and Mulder are there and add value, but the one-off characters and locations have to sustain their own stories. Here, there's no internal drama to any of the investigations and no stand-alone characters capable of driving their own tales.

At one point, Hynek declares, "I am going to use science to reveal the truth. While the truth might be sometimes less entertaining than unfounded speculation, there's safety in the certitude it provides." It's there you'd think that maybe History's brand edict might require sticking to actual history and avoiding anything sensationalistic at the cost of entertainment. Instead, once the show starts diving into its mythology episodes, it becomes very, very clear that nobody was being contained by the factual record, only by a basic sense of genre convention.

The serie does some good work in reproducing the national mood of paranoia in early Cold War. That's especially the case in the first two episodes, from Maleficent director Robert Stromberg, whose background in visual effects and production design is evident in nearly every heightened, painterly frame. Those opening episodes contain locations and set pieces that are, stylistically, beautifully realized even if the plot never kicks in. Whether the issue is vision or budget or time, subsequent episodes directed by Pete Travis and Norma Bailey are less distinctive, though the fourth and sixth episodes still have eye-catching moments.

In all, the six episodes of Project Blue Book did just enough to keep me moving forward in the hopes that everything will click. Even if the storytelling comes together at some point, I'm not sure what can be done to make Hynek and Quinn a better duo. As it stands, the show is interesting without ever being as fascinating or involving as it ought to be.

Cast: Aidan Gillen, Michael Malarkey, Laura Mennell, Ksenia Solo, Michael Harney, Neal McDonough
Creator: David O'Leary
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (History)