The director J.J. Abrams gave name to one of the most influential storytelling conventions of our day in a 2007 TED Talk, in which he spoke of his fascination with the concept of the “mystery box”—so named for an unopened package Abrams was given in childhood whose contents remain unknown to this day. There’s nothing new to the concept of mystery in fiction, but Abrams is unique in positing mystery as the overriding imperative of entertainment.
The concept animated his TV show Lost, which hooked viewers with its question-making island, and Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which left viewers thirsty for its Force-wielding family tree to be diagrammed in future sequels, and most recently Abrams’s HBO drama Westworld, which has fascinated an impressively large viewership with concentric quandaries about the nature of its virtual and non-virtual reality. There’s also been a non-Abrams mystery-box boom as creators have moved to capitalize on the internet-assisted fan frenzies that attends any clue-laden tale: True Detective, whose first season promised but never satisfyingly unveiled a grand conspiracy, Mr. Robot, designed to induce feverish speculation about what’s in its hero’s head, Sense8, the Wachowski’s Netflix original about interlinked brains and cross-continental murder schemes.
And now we have Falling Water, a bizarre new drama about supernatural lucid dreaming. USA has called it a “statement show,” which means it’s probably meant to bring the kind of cultish following that Mr. Robot did for the onetime formula-driven network. Promising a web of Jungian symbolism, Lynchian surrealism, and Abrams-y subterfuge, but nearly no compelling characters, little narrative cohesion, and blah cinematographic vision, it represents the preposterous pinnacle for the if-you-confuse-them-they-will-come trend.
The series opens on a not-entirely-inviting note with an extended shot of Lizzie Brocheré’s character Tess screaming in agony. She’s giving birth, but then the attending nurse tells her there’s no baby. This idea of a disappeared kid is mystery No. 1 for viewers and dream-obsession No. 1 for Tess, a trend-spotter who spends part of her waking hours asking doctors if they, one more time, would mind checking whether she’s ever given birth. Her storyline gives first entree into the larger mythos of the series when the billionaire Bill Boerg (Zak Orth) offers to help her find her maybe-imaginary child if she’ll take part in sleep experiments that prove people can walk in and out of one anothers’ dreams. Brocheré’s quiet, repressedly jittery performance is one of the few intrinsically memorable things about the show, and her character is an appealing superhero of sorts, perceptive and reserved.
The other two principals are David Ajala as Burton, a perceptive and reserved security expert at a Wall Street firm, and Will Yun Lee as Taka, a—yes—perceptive and reserved cop. Maybe it’s the lead trio’s shared personality traits that have somehow brought them into contact with their world’s weirder side, or maybe their similarity is just a result of the same tropeish writing that dictates most of the series’ scenes take place in austere rooms echoing with humorless dialogue. For now, it’s a meta-mystery: The three episodes I’ve seen have barely unraveled these characters significance beyond their confused interactions with what appears to be an interdimensional conspiracy involving a dead rock singer’s forgotten album, a Belgian ambassador, and a cult that wears green sneakers.
The story is told in dream logic, slipping between scenes in the waking world and the unconscious one with apparent disregard for classic storytelling norms about suspense or narrative cause-and-effect. In this age of flowering television creativity, perhaps USA expects the experimental technique to be applauded. But something’s obviously gone awry when you have an unintroduced character giving unprompted voiceovers throughout the pilot spelling out the concept of the show (dreams are real, connected, and the site of some sort of conflict upon which the fate of humanity may or may not depend).
Moreover, if your show is going to unhinge itself from the traditional rules of entertainment, it’d better transfix in some other ways: indelible characters, sharp writing, visuals you can’t forget—all elements that, when you think about it, great mystery-box works have in plenty. But instead of the wild flights of imagination you might expect from a show about dreams, viewers get ominous puddles, faceless people, and creepy children: cliches. The sole appeal upon which Falling Water relies is mystery, and I’ll admit that after watching I do want to learn the answers to the questions the plot has posed. But I don’t wish for the answers so much that I’ll sit through another hour.