The most surprising thing about “Project Blue Book” is that it took so long to become a TV show in the first place. As it will tell you itself at the top of every episode, History’s new scripted drama is “based on true events,” or at least the recorded instances of possible UFO sightings and the Air Force’s subsequent investigations during the 1950’s and ’60s. Each week, a new case sparks new intrigue, both about the potential of both alien life and a government conspiracy to cover it up. All the while, the Cold War looms ominously, infusing everyone with a deep unease and paranoia they can’t shake no matter how hard they try to stave it all off.
In this way, “Project Blue Book” sets itself up to be a period piece “X Files,” a reliable formula that would be hard to fumble completely. That inspiration extends most obviously to the unlikely pair anchoring the series. Captain Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey) recruits astrophysicist Dr. Josef Allen Hynek (Aidan Gillen of “Game of Thrones”) to join him in investigating reports of UFO activity around the country, but the gig comes with a huge and omnipresent asterisk.
Quinn’s government superiors, Generals Harding and Valentine (played respectively by efficient day players Neal McDonough and Michael Harney), don’t particularly want them to prove the existence of alien life. Instead, they insist that Quinn and Hynek use their deductive reasoning skills to cover up any hint of extraterrestrial mystique however possible — and at any cost. This is largely fine by Quinn, who wants to prove his worth as a reliable foot soldier in order to advance his own career. But Hynek, a self-professed “eccentric,” can’t resist the allure of definitively discovering the unknown, and therefore pushes back against Quinn’s instinct to shrug off their more fantastic encounters with everything he’s got.
Their mismatched “nerd meets macho” dynamic is a classic, right down to Quinn grinning a cocky grin and calling Hynek “doc” in their fondest moments. But at least in the first several episodes, Malarkey and Gillen’s chemistry doesn’t spark enough to become as truly memorable as David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, who immediately jumpstarted “The X Files.” Still, Quinn and Hynek’s UFO cases of the week are a solid marriage of procedural drama structure, sci-fi intrigue, and even some class commentary when their travels inevitably take them to the working-class rural setting where most of the sightings seem to occur.
But it doesn’t take long before “Project Blue Book” gets caught up in its own narrative weeds. Generals Valentine and Harding show up sporadically in order to smirk and remind us that things aren’t as they seem, guarding a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” style room of secrets to prove their sinister bonafides. Meanwhile, Hynek’s meek wife Mimi (Laura Mennell) descends further and further into her own worry and paranoia as bomb shelters begin to crop up in her suburban neighborhood, and yet she still doesn’t realize that her glamorous new friend Susie (a charming but wasted Ksenia Solo) has more on her mind than friendship. These overarching plotlines work hard to establish a show outside Quinn and Hynek’s research; neither is quite compelling enough to accomplish that goal.
All told, however, “Project Blue Book” still represents a step in the right direction for History’s scripted drama ambitions. It digs into a specific and perhaps forgotten portion of history, brings it to life, and has fun while doing it. Even if the show has trouble finding its sea legs, it’s a perfectly fun bit of distraction that could find an admirable groove if it proves willing to take a step back and make some calculated adjustments.
Drama, 60 mins. Premieres January 8 on History at 10 p.m. EST.
Cast: Aidan Gillen, Michael Malarkey, Laura Mennell, Ksenia Solo, Neal McDonough, Michael Harney.
Crew: Executive producers: Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke, Jackie Levine, David O’Leary, Sean Jablonski, Barry Jossen, Arturo Interian.