Debris is an apt title for a show that's missing a few pieces. Former Fringe showrunner J.H. Wyman's new sci-fi drama, premiering Monday on NBC, has the basic skeleton of an interesting procedural: Two agents, played by Jonathan Tucker and Riann Steele, work together to investigate the scattered wreckage of an alien spacecraft, which affects the people who come into contact with it in bizarre ways. But the show feels disconnected from itself, like it's already on autopilot.
Debris' pilot, the only episode made available for review, drops viewers unceremoniously in the middle of the action, as CIA Agent Bryan Beneventi (Tucker) and MI6 Agent Finola Jones (Steele) hunt down men trading pieces of alien debris on the black market. They've seen this sort of thing before, enough to have a scientific shorthand for it; the leads spend much of the pilot crouching in front of evidence, confidently declaring that it's "clocking in on the Legari at a 4-5" or "clicking in at 200 LDUs." The agents' experience — the fact that they've already broken down the paranormal into quantifiable (if nonsensical) terms — strips the story of its wonder. We're meant to gaze in awe as human bodies hover above the ground, but it's hard to swoon when our heroes are too busy gathering data.
The first episode never tries to justify why the story starts here, with what seems like an ordinary case. Nothing in the pilot changes what the main characters know of the world, and it's difficult to connect with them when we aren't learning alongside them. There is one last-minute twist, but there's no feeling in it — it's revealed to only one character over the phone. There are too many phone calls in this pilot; the effect is cold. It's all talking and no human connection. The dialogue is packed with exposition that feels more like it's meant to remind viewers of things we already know than explain the characters we're just now meeting. It's easy to watch the pilot and wonder if you clicked play on Episode 4 by mistake.
All that empty talking pushes Bryan and Finola to the side of their own story, which never really feels like their story to begin with. They don't drive the action; they just react to what's happening around them, following leads and calling their bosses. Steele and Tucker are strong performers, but with nothing to latch on to in the script, they're sleepwalking their way through it. You want them to get abducted by a better show. Even Tucker, usually such a fearless character actor, can't muster enough conviction to sell standard procedural-type lines like "My partner's life depends on it." It's laughable that Finola moralizes to her partner that human connection is "all we really have to keep us on the ground here" when the characters are given so little time to actually connect.
The only humanity in the pilot episode comes from the case, involving a strange young boy who seems to be luring women to their death. The investigation evolves into an effective, if not exactly original, exploration of the ways grief can haunt and trap people. But it's a bad sign that the first episode of the series is more emotionally invested in the stand-alone parts of the story than it is in its mythology, much less its leads. After one episode, the main character of Debris feels more like its titular character: debris.
There is an elastic potential to Debris' premise — the alien wreckage can do anything, and it's clear from the pilot that, if nothing else, the show thinks that's pretty cool. It's bound to evoke comparisons to Wyman's work on Fringe, which probed the terrifying possibilities of the far reaches of science. (Eagle-eyed Fringe fans will catch a reference in the first episode.) But while Fringe found sublime wonder in what the human mind can create, Debris feels like it's already answered its biggest mystery: It was aliens. Their spacecraft was vibrating at 200 LDUs, or whatever.
TV Guide rating: 2/5
Debris premieres Monday, March 1 at 10/9c on NBC.