"The Event" is your next mystery scifi obsessionS

We've seen the pilot for NBC's The Event, and while we still don't know what the titular Event is, we're impressed by this politically-charged thriller, which contains shades of Lost and 24. Spoilers inside.

With little fanfare, the Event panel kicked off with a showing of the first episode of The Event, which, appropriately enough, opens with an event. We don't know exactly what this event is, but we see malfunctioning news cameras trained on US President Elias Martinez (played by Blair Underwood) as an anchorwoman screams for the cameras to shoot at something in the sky.

We then cut to 23 minutes before this event, with Sean Walker (Jason Ritter) on an airplane waiting on the runway. Sean is sweating and jumpy, and he's just disposed of something that looks like a jumpsuit bearing a US flag in the plane's bathroom trash. When the plane finally begins to move, Sean notices a black SUV driving alongside the runway. We flash between this moment and several days earlier, when Sean is leaving on a cruise with his girlfriend Leila Buchanan, leaving Leila's daughter in the care of Leila's parents, including Michael Buchanan (Scott Patterson). We also flash on another character, Simon Lee (Ian Anthony Dale), the driver of the black SUV, who is trying to stop the plane from taking off, claiming there is a terrorist on board.

When Simon fails and the plane makes it into the air, Sean races toward the cockpit door, pulling a gun on the stewardess and demanding to talk to the pilot. So we reach the pilot's second mystery: how did an ordinary man get from a pleasant cruise with his girlfriend to pulling a gun on an airplane in just a little over a week?

But it's through Simon that we get our first hints at what the Event actually is. Thirteen months earlier, in a mysterious isolated facility, Simon talks to Sophia Maguire (Laura Innes) about a man who recently escaped the facility with the intention of trading certain information for his freedom. "He's going to tell them about the Event," Simon tells Sophia. But he wonders if it's better that the information get out. "Don't you think we should at least warn them so they can prepare?" he asks her. He reminds her that there's a new president and that he seems different from the previous presidents. Sophia replied that "they" won't let Martinez find out about "this place." "We have to protect everyone here," she tells him. "Can I count on you?" Simon responds in the affirmative, but when he tells a guard to return Sophia to her quarters, we see that she is in handcuffs, an apparent prisoner in the facility.

Back in the present, President Martinez is called away from his son's birthday party to discuss a big announcement he is going to make. It gradually becomes clear that Martinez has received a file on the facility from an unknown (to us, if not Martinez) source, and has become aware of 79 prisoners detained there. Martinez plans to free the detainees, saying their human rights are being violated, but CIA Director Blake Sterling (Željko Ivanek) warns against their release. "I know your family had it hard in Cuba, but there are many times when we have sacrificed the rights of the few for the safety of the many," he says, claiming the CIA does not have enough information to know how the release of the detainees will affect the public.

The episode continues to unfold, offering more surprises and hints until it roles to its climax, where several of the story arcs quite literally collide. And it's at its climax that the show's science fiction element comes to light. It's not clear what it means — does The Event involve aliens? Humans who have discovered a new technology? All that we know is that there is something mysterious and powerful out there in the world, and it has just revealed itself in public.

The Event involves a lot of non-linear storytelling, and you can see the trail of breadcrumbs that the show's writers are leaving, even if we can't tell yet where the trail is leading. I saw tons of small details in the pilot that I'm sure will become important later, and someone who had seen the pilot before commented that she noticed a lot more during the second viewing. Of course, we've had our hearts broken before by science fiction shows whose tantalizing mysteries never fully pay off. But show producer Evan Katz assured the audience that won't be the case here:

Everything is designed so that we will answer questions so you won't be frustrated. You won't think we don't know what we're doing or that we're making it up as we go along.

He promises that the show won't simply pile on new mysteries each week — big answers will come regularly throughout the show and will "keep you guess in a fair way."

But he wouldn't offer any clues as to what the Event itself is. "All we can tell you is that [what happens at the end of the pilot] is not the Event."

One of the things we immediately noticed about the pilot is the political allegory. When President Martinez and Director Sterling talk about the closing of the facility and the release of its detainees, it sounds at first like they're talking about Guantanamo Bay. We spoke to Jeffrey Reiner, who directed the pilot, and he told us we can expect more of those touches:

The kind of metaphor or analogy of immigration is going to be a very big theme of the show. And dealt from both sides: dealt from the immigrees and the people who are, you know — from the government. And I think there are going to be a lot of op-ed social issues that hopefully will be up for parsing to the show.