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Wired: Taking a Cue From The X-Files, Spy Thriller Hunted Keeps Things Complex

Taking a Cue From The X-Files, Spy Thriller Hunted Keeps Things Complex
Hugh Hart

[Original article here]

Creating a TV series that starts off with a bang and actually gets better instead of dissolving into generic pap (sorry, Revolution) is clearly a lot harder than it looks. As evidenced by high-concept flops like Alcatraz and Terra Nova, long-form television mythologies too often lose momentum when they should be building suspense.

New head-spinning thriller Hunted proves to be a satisfying exception.

The brainy action series from former The X-Files writer-producer Frank Spotnitz, which debuts Friday on Cinemax at 10 p.m./9 Central, centers on private security operative Sam Hunter. Played by an intense, athletic Melissa George (In Treatment, Alias), Sam comes across sullen, shrewd, psychologically damaged or sexy — whatever the mission calls for. She establishes her ass-kicking cred by snapping necks, shooting, kicking, punching and otherwise neutralizing a half-dozen attackers in a matter of minutes during the series’ opening sequence.

On first viewing, the mission, set in the chaotic streets of Tangier, Morocco, seems totally confusing. But the beauty of Hunted is that all this murky mayhem will eventually make complete sense, once Spotnitz and company plunge deeper into their Mobius strip-like mystery: Sam, equally plagued by recent betrayal and a traumatic childhood, belongs to a glum crew of backbiting Londoners employed at private security firm Byzantium.

(Spoiler alert: Minor plot points follow.)

Hunted pits Hunter against pitiless capitalist Jack Turner (ferociously portrayed by Patrick Malahide), who’s intent on building a dam in Pakistan. Byzantium’s anonymous client wants to shut him down. Simultaneously, Hunted teases out a huge Da Vinci Code-style conspiracy that keeps revealing new layers like so many Matryoshka nesting dolls.

After watching the first five episodes, Wired asked Spotnitz how he keeps Hunted‘s insanely complex storyline from running off the rails. “It was extremely challenging not only because the narrative is full of so many twists and turns, but because so many people are lying to each other,” Spotnitz replied in an e-mail. “No two people have the same understanding of what’s going on. That sometimes made it difficult keeping track of who knew what. But we were really pleased with the way it all came together in the end.”

Hunted‘s intertwined storylines include a “we’ve got a mole” subplot, but the familiar dilemma gains fresh dimension here because the very notion of a heroic purpose appears to be missing in action.

“In a traditional spy story, we assume our spies are the good guys,” said Spotnitz, who huddled for six months with three other writers and a story editor to make sure all the pieces fit together. “Whether or not everything the U.S. or British government does is good, I think we take it for granted that they’re trying to do the right thing. But when you enter the private world, you can make no such assumptions. Private interests are trying to accumulate wealth and power, and whether that serves the public interest or a greater good is purely incidental. I thought this was an extremely interesting subject worth exploring.”

Spotnitz became intrigued with the world of spies-for-hire after taking note of the private Blackwater operatives in Iraq and the 2008 financial meltdown.

“So much has been outsourced, downsized or privatized,” he said. “We live in a world where private, corporate power has never been greater. I didn’t realize when I first started doing research how ubiquitous private security firms have become. There are thousands of them! They weren’t that difficult to find and, surprisingly, they were very happy to talk about what they do.”

The X-Files Legacy

Like Vince Gilligan, creator of meth-dealing uber drama Breaking Bad, Spotnitz got schooled in the art of long-gestating story payoffs while working as a writer-producer on The X-Files. “Probably the two biggest lessons I carry with me from The X-Files are to be ambitious and to never write down to your audience,” he said.

Elaborating on the subject during a press conference last summer, Spotnitz said, “When The X Files started, the word ‘mythology’ was not in the vocabulary of network television. The internet was just coming and I remember looking at newsgroups to see how observant the fans were. We began to realize that we could thread clues, and sometimes wait two or three years before you picked up the thread again, and not only would fans notice it but they would reward you for it because you were rewarding their loyalty.”

Hunted, structured as an eight-episode season, shifts thematic focus from X-Files’ obsession with government cover-ups to a post-9/11 landscape populated by mercenary agents and their morally suspect corporate overseers. But in one key regard, Hunted extends Chris Carter’s X-Files credo: “I think you’re more engaged with the show if you’re not being spoon-fed,” Spotnitz said.

The takeaway, for potential Hunted viewers: Pay attention and be patient. “Something happens, and two or three episodes later you’ll see the connection,” Spotnitz promised.

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