Welcome to Marwen, the latest film from Robert Zemeckis may have laid an egg at the box office over the holidays, but the Academy Award winning director has two television projects that will stand a chance at making up for that loss. This fall, Zemeckis produced the NBC Lost wannabe Manifest, which, despite not being very good nevertheless became a ratings hit for the Peacock network. But there’s another project happy to drop Zemeckis’s name in its marketing: History’s UFO period drama Project Blue Book, starring Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen as Dr. Allen Hynek, an astrophysicist who finds himself moonlighting with the Air Force in an effort to discredit so-called extraterrestrial encounters, and Legends of Tomorrow’s Neal McDonough as Gen. James Harding, a military figure who is seemingly tasked with making sure the only thing the American public should be concerned with is the Soviet Union having their own atomic bomb.
The series is History’s latest scripted drama whose narrative origins are close enough to being “historical” that it can be comfortably slotted in the network’s lineup. As an historical fiction series, Project Blue Book hews closer to fiction than history, but given the success the network has had turning Vikings into a ratings hit and making its Templar Knights saga Knightfall a potential successor to its flagship scripted series, it’s not too much of a surprise to see History get out of its comfort zone to tell a story that’s a little more contemporary (its period drama trappings at least came from the last century), while also segueing into genre territory. That territory being, of course, one near and dear to fans of The X-Files, as it involves investigations into UFOs and “little green men,” as well as plenty of government conspiracies — though this time it does so under the marketing umbrella of being based on “actual case files” from the government’s exploration of strange phenomena.
That distinction both helps and hinders Project Blue Book from the jump. While the notion that the series is using reality as its starting point affords it some hardy narrative weight early on, it’s also something of a hindrance once the overarching story really gets cooking and Dr. Hynek is faced with evidence of not only the existence of intelligent life visiting the planet, but of a vast governmental conspiracy designed to bury each and every encounter, even if that means crafting elaborate explanations or making witnesses disappear. In a way, it’s as though History wants to have its unearthly cake and eat it, too — for Project Blue Book to fly a “Based on Actual Events” banner while also splashing around in the sort of entertainingly contrived waters that Mulder and Scully did as recently as 2018.
Lucky for Project Blue Book, then, it’s entertaining enough to get away with it, at least for now. Unlike the mostly disappointing X-Files revival FOX staged recently, History’s new series gets to take advantage of all the UFO conspiracy stuff that makes shows like these so enticing, but it does so without a quarter century’s worth of narrative baggage. Dr. Hynek’s investigations into unexplained, possibly extraterrestrial terrestrial encounters may unfold in a world 60-plus years removed from 2019, but from a narrative standpoint, Project Blue Book isn’t nearly so weighed down. That newness and the realization that Hynek and the audience are standing on the precipice of the proverbial rabbit hole, does more to make the show inviting than any of the not-so-secret glimpses at the spacemen Hynek’s been hired to debunk the existence of.
It’s not entirely smooth sailing for the series, though. The premiere struggles mightily with more pilot-y cliche’s than you can shake a three-fingered alien at. The script, written by series creator David O’Leary, heavily favors holding the audience’s hand through every scene, making sure each character’s motivation is not just crystal clear, but reiterated at regular intervals, lest the viewer forget Gen. Harding would rather the American people not know about the existence of extraterrestrials, or that the real job Captain Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey) is tasked with is signing off on reports disputing the claims of those who’ve had a close encounter of the third kind. Then there’s the largely thankless role of Hynek’s wife, Mimi (Laure Mennell), who is shunted into a happier Betty Draper-like existence, caring for the couple’s Flash Gordon-loving moppet and making friends with the seemingly sinister Susie Miller (Ksenia Solo), while Allen’s out chasing strange lights in the sky.
But Project Blue Book isn’t interested in being an exploration of American societal conventions in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Instead, it’s mainly interested in using its period elements as a way to make the stories of Project Blue Book and its attendant, overly serious conspiratorial flotsam, play by rules deliberately hamstrung by technology that seems crude by today’s standards, as well as the sense that the world was a lot bigger and maybe more mysterious just a half-century ago. And while it may not necessarily be a better show for it, it’s certainly a more fun show as a result.
Part of that is due to the series casting two of the most accomplished scenery chewers on television in the last few years. Anyone who’s watched McDonough on Justified or his turns on Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow is well aware how much fun the actor can be to watch. The same goes for Gillen, who somehow manages to make everything his character does seem sinister. That’s certainly not the intention of Project Blue Book, as Dr. Allen Hynek is intended to be the guy the audience can not only trust, but that they want to trust. Gillen tries to play Hynek as a passionate space nerd who stumbles into a government conspiracy, but after playing corrupt politicians, chaos-loving pimps, and Romany hitmen, a mild-mannered, Midwestern family man with a Ph.D. just sort of fits kinda weird on him. And again, that’s part of what makes Project Blue Book fun to watch.
A lack of subtlety and sometimes clumsy storytelling seems to be part of History’s approach with regard to its scripted television as of late. Project Blue Book’s unintentional campiness and Knightfall’s Dan Brown-like fixation on symbology are, oddly, selling points for potential viewers. And if you’ve tuned into Vikings at all recently, a late-season 5 string of episodes has seemingly abandoned the notion of subtlety altogether. With any luck, Project Blue Book will find a better balance between its slowly unfolding conspiracy and its “based on actual cases” pretense to make for a more rounded and fulfilling show. For the time being, though, it’s not quite The X-Files, but this new alien-obsessed series will do in a pinch for those still believing the truth is out there.
Project Blue Book continues next Tuesday with ‘The Flatwoods Monster’ @9pm on History.