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Women, Terrorism, Treasure and Nazis: Fox’s Zero Hour

Conspiracy theories have always been part of society. When an explanation for something can be made as convoluted as feasibly possible—and when people convince themselves that some sort of coverup must be involved—conspiracy theories fill the gap between what is seen and what is imagined, what is believed and what has actual evidentiary support. With organisation into societies with layers of bureaucracy, secrecy, and political power came the inevitable (and sometimes correct) conclusion among ordinary citizens that great conspiracies were at work below the fabric of their society.

In pop culture, their popularity has waxed and waned; in the 1990s, viewers had The X-Files, a wildly popular series that ran for almost a decade, stretching into the early 2000s. They followed Mulder and Scully on journeys through conspiracy theories, skepticism, and beyond among tangled, twisted plots that spanned not just television but also a series of films that extended the life of the franchise. With the decline of The X-Files came a hole in the lives of viewers that remained largely unfilled for almost a decade.

Bit by bit, though, conspiracy theories have crept back into the pop culture eye; Fringe on Fox, for example, was an early trailblazer in the new iteration, while Malinda Lo stunningly represented the conspiracy theory in text in Adaptation (Dan Brown also helped make conspiracy theories trendy again with his Da Vinci Code, about which more in a moment). Now, ABC is throwing its hat into the ring with Zero Hour, a conspiracy theory mashup that includes all the elements people seem to love; fetching young women, global terrorism, obscure religious orders (the Rosicrucians, in this case), and hidden treasures. All with a side of Nazis.

Premiering this week on US television, Zero Hour plunges viewers quickly into the heart of a plot involving a new 12 set of apostles dispatched as the Nazi machine clamped down on Germany to protect a critically important secret, one so valuable that it required scattering to the winds and risking lives to protect it. Our hero is caught up in the plot when his wife is kidnapped by someone seeking a piece to the puzzle, and when he discovers that he himself is part of the story in a very visceral way.

One among a lineup of midseason shows trying to stand out from the pack, Zero Hour seems to be trying to balance thriller/drama with a touch of conspiracy theory to keep viewers coming back each week for the next chapter in the thrilling saga. As is typical, the circumstances of the show themselves stretch belief. Thus far our heroes appear to have unlimited resources, with the funds to shoot off to the poles, Bavaria, and wherever else they need to go, and the ability to access a huge array of tools to aid them in their quest. Though we thankfully haven’t been treated to any absurd abuses of the power of technology yet, I have no doubt it’s coming, especially since the FBI has become involved in an uneasy partnership with our intrepid and formerly independent skeptics.

A rather bizarre twist from the usual conspiracy theory narrative, when the government is an enemy rather than an ally, but I suspect our helpful FBI agent is more than a rogue going off-mission.

Whether Zero Hour will stand out, though, is another question. It felt painfully derivative through much of the pilot, rather than striking new ground in a well-established and sometimes fantastically entertaining pop culture genre. The characters didn’t really seem to mesh with each other, and not just because they were all piling secrets on top of secrets. And the premise that opened the show was just too flimsy; we are to believe that a series of happenstance events converged to create the drama, and they just don’t fit.

There is too much about Zero Hour that sits uneasy with itself, unsure about its footing. While pilots can be rocky, this one seems even more unstable than most, and the groundwork it lays is not very solid. Much like the ice it left us on at the cliffhanger close of the episode, it feels like it could break through, collapse, or simply melt away on the slightest pretext, leaving viewers hanging and wondering why they invested their time.

The level of complication in the show seems almost unnecessary, designed to distract viewers with sleight of hand and force them to commit to watching weekly so they don’t become mired in confusion while not actually providing any meaty, interesting plot. And while the producers claim the complexity of the show is meant to encourage viewers to engage between episodes, and that it’s not The Da Vinci Code, evidence would seem to suggest otherwise. It’s hard not to start drawing immediate parallels between the two, especially given the preponderance of Christian iconography and the similar disregard for historical accuracy.

If you adore Dan Brown, like bad history, and find yourself sorely missing highly sensationalised versions of Christian orders in your life, you’ll probably like Zero Hour. Otherwise, you may not find much to enjoy in this spectacle, which could be shortlived after its 13 episode initial season. What makes effective conspiracy theory dramas work is chemistry, and Zero Hour fizzles out.