What is "The Event"? You won't know by the end of the pilot, which nevertheless does a nifty job of raising suspicions -- and introducing a diverse cast of characters, from an extremely unlucky vacationer to the president of the United States. NBC's stab at a big, serialized "Lost"-like premise gets off to an enticing start, though as with any such exercise, the ability to provide forward momentum -- and satisfying answers -- tends to quickly separate the few genuine events from the canceled afterthoughts.
Jumping around in time, the pilot busily plants a number of seeds, the key ones involving Sean Walker (Jason Ritter), who is about to propose to his girlfriend on vacation; and President Martinez (Blair Underwood), who, in very "Independence Day"-like fashion, discovers there's something -- very big -- that the CIA has kept hidden from him.
The details remain purposefully obscure, but they involve a secret military base in Alaska and the 97 detainees being housed there, who are led by Sophia (Laura Innes). If the mind naturally drifts toward the possibility of aliens -- which would certainly qualify as an event -- the high-level conversations also evoke vague echoes of Guantanamo Bay, and producers Evan Katz (who dealt with fictional commanders in chief on "24") and Steve Stark clearly have no intention of divulging their secrets all at once.
Fair enough, and the briskly paced premiere -- written by Nick Wauters and directed by Jeffrey Reiner -- is certainly enough to lure the audience back for a second visit. But with disappointing "Lost" wannabes like ABC's "FlashForward" so close in the rearview mirror, such leaps of faith come with an emergency parachute at the ready.
On the plus side, the program has been shrewdly cast from top to bottom, with Ritter making a convincing Hitchcockian Everyman -- albeit one who seems ill-equipped to the task if persistent heroism is in his future.
By choosing "The Event" as its Monday centerpiece -- sandwiched between "Chuck" and "Chase," which almost sounds like an animated Disney series -- NBC is engaging in perhaps its biggest dice roll of the fall. Serials are a tough sell in general, and this one faces the added burden of established competition on CBS and ABC, ESPN's "Monday Night Football" and Fox's "Lone Star," which is among this season's classiest new dramas.
Then again, that's why God created TiVo, and some creative scheduling -- like repeating the show on NBC cable channels -- ought to give it a fighting chance if it can sustain this level of quality. Still, it's a series with precious little error margin to avoid being wistfully remembered as one of those blink-and-you-missed-'em events.