Early in the “Project Blue Book” pilot, astrophysicist Dr. J. Allen Hynek (Aidan Gillen) is telling his wife Mimi (Laura Mennell) why he’s accepted a job debunking UFO sightings for the government. Sure, it’s an extra paycheck for their family of three, and no, he doesn’t have to give up his professorship at the Ohio State University. But the real reason he’s going to travel all over America, explaining away a different alien sighting every week, is because he wants to be recognized for disproving the existence of flying saucers.
Viewers know he failed. “Project Blue Book” is set in the 1950s and inspired by true events, and people are still prattling on about UFO sightings, so… well, you do the math. People may know Dr. Hynek’s name (though not on the level of his heroes, Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler), but it’s clear he never achieved his goal and this show isn’t worth studying to understand why. It’s too dull and, ultimately, too unconvincing.
Based on Hynek’s investigations into the existence of UFOs, the new History series bounces to a new case each week, while building a government cover-up plot to boot. The premiere opens with two fighter pilots cruising through a routine evening in the sky when one is accosted by a blurry, quickly moving green light. The pilot makes chase, even opening fire on the unidentified flying object, before his aircraft is sucked upward into a beam of light and then sent spinning out of control to Earth. Captured in foggy blue and green lighting with great sound mixing and admirable energy, this is the high point of the pilot episode and the series thus far: a rush of excitement that piques curiosity, yet one that cannot really be replicated or satisfied.
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Enter Neil McDonough as General James Harding, the man in charge of Project Blue Book: a clandestine operation meant to provide reasonable explanations for seemingly inexplicable phenomena. He recruits an up-and-coming Air Force officer, Captain Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey), to shepherd a non-governmental expert around the country to various problem sites as a means to stem national “mass hysteria” over UFOs. The two are meant to quickly close cases and quell concerns that some things are out of our government’s control.
That expert is the aforementioned Hynek, a “real genius” who worked on governmental projects during the war, but who can be a tad eccentric, even off-putting, with close collaborators. Everything exciting about that opening comes crashing down during Hynek’s home life. Conversations are stilted — polite to the point of nausea, yet unacknowledged as such. When his son shows up shouting for his father and bragging about his accomplishments, he’s the kind of caricature Hollywood films created in the ’50s before audiences realized they were a figment of the faux-perfect imagination. (Note: If little Billy or whatever his name is turns out to be an alien, I”ll eat my hat.)
Oh, and hats play an important role here. While Hynek and Captain Quinn bop around looking for UFOs — some investigations offer reasonable answers for the events teased in each introductory scene, and some don’t, thus representing the 700 unsolved cases Hynek left behind — a larger governmental conspiracy plays out in the background. Multiple episodes end with an ominous shot of something the American government is hiding or with officers hinting at something they shouldn’t be talking about. Hell, the first episode shows a bunch of military men gathering and agreeing not to tell the public what they know.
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But these mysterious figures, who lurk around watching Hynek during his investigations, come to be known as “the men in hats.” This is an odd way to distinguish them, given every single male character in “Project Blue Book” wears a hat. Hynek wears a hat. Captain Quinn wears hats. Even General Harding probably has a hat in his closet, given he’s the most suspicious figure of all. It’s this kind of goofy misstep — call them anything else; were the writers afraid of copyright infringement by saying “men in black”? — that makes “Project Blue Book” feel made up even when it’s based in truth. And since the cases have all been explored with more gore, more glamour, and more gusto in plenty of sci-fi stories already, it’s not easy to get swept away in this familiar story.
The most notable comparison is “The X-Files.” Each week, Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigated various paranormal activity on behalf of the government, but their yin-and-yang dynamic — he’s a believer, she’s a skeptic — helped drive the narrative as much as the energy between platonic partners. Here, the partners are both skeptics, and they only clash when the doctor wants more answers than the military officer. That’s not that interesting, and when it’s two white men leading the way — one who’s poorly developed, and the other with a less-than-consistent accent — there’s even less friction to create drama. (There’s one good arc in “Project Blue Book,” meaning one arc sans a predictable endpoint, and it belongs to Ksenia Solo’s Susie Miller. But she’s relegated to second or fifth fiddle far too often, and saying any more would be a spoiler.)
“Project Blue Book” asks us to invest in Dr. Hynek’s doomed quest without giving us good reason to invest in the man himself, and what good is a tragedy without resonance? Moreover, what fun is a fact-based story about aliens if it’s well-trodden territory told in less thrilling fashion? Creator David O’Leary’s History series tries to coast by recreating the facts and exploring how a skeptic might come to believe, but the doc’s journey is sorely lacking in ingenuity. Whether it’s real or written doesn’t matter when overly familiar plots are acted out by cookie cutter characters. “Project Blue Book” feels like “X-Files” Lite, only with a whole lot of indistinguishable men — and all the women are stuck on the sideline.
“Project Blue Book” premieres Tuesday, January 8 at 10 p.m. ET on History.