Now that we’ve reached the end of the Emmy season with its far more serious-minded content, the time has come for some less lofty pursuits in TV watching. ABC and FOX are getting a jump start on the season with two new series – one potentially recurring, another a limited run – that dip into the popular supernatural cannon with relatively strong results.
First up, ABC’s The Whispers comes to us from executive producer Steven Spielberg and director Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go) and is apparently loosely based on a 1951 Ray Bradbury short story “Zero Hour” from The Illustrated Man. It deals with one of cinema and television’s creepiest tropes, the unexpected danger inherit in damaged children. The pilot opened with a little girl talking to an unseen friend named “Drill” who convinces her to stage a booby trap for her unsuspecting mother, causing her mother to plummet to the ground from their treehouse. It’s all part of some most dangerous game. Turns out, there’s a pattern here as many children have seen “Drill” and at least one other has committed a heinous act. Judging from the first two episodes, the events are all connected by some type of illicit or otherworldly government activity, centering around the discovery of a crashed plane in a remote desert.
American Horror Story‘s Lily Rabe stars as an FBI agent who deals with child issues. Although there is a large cast of semi-notable names, Rabe is the series’ MVP. She anchors the show with an accomplished performance steeped in a mother’s love and desire to care for the affected children – quite different from her memorable turn on American Horror Story: Asylum. Admittedly ignorant of the original source material, the show as it’s presented feels something like a greatest hits of Spielberg’s science fiction-influenced films and the themes therein. The damage adults do to each other, particularly adultery and divorce, have direct impacts on children, impacts that manifest themselves in supernatural alien hokum. E.T. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Poltergeist. In one way or another, it’s all there. Hell, even Dee Wallace shows up. Even if for the money, it’s easy to see why Spielberg lent his name to the material. Early results seem positive if the proceedings often steer too far away from the heart of the material (the “visited” children) toward the more cliched adult drama, making me antsy for a little more child-engineered horror. Let’s see where this goes.
Far more fun (and more messy, admittedly) is Fox’s limited series Wayward Pines, based on a series of novels by author Blake Crouch. This is a real loony tunes series, an effective mash-up of Twin Peaks and Lost with a mad dash of Jurassic Park tossed in for good measure. That’s already telling you way too much about the allure of this show.
Pines stars Matt Dillon as a married FBI agent sent to the mysterious town of Wayward Pines to recover two missing fellow agents, one of whom he had an affair with recently. After being seriously wounded in a car accident, Dillon is hospitalized and is later unable to escape the town. Driving out one road only brings you back in through another. Also, the town appears to be surrounded by a giant electric fence. It’s completely cut off from the outside world. It even prints its own money. Apparently, the entire town is composed of people constantly living in terror of breaking the primary rule – to never speak about the past. Once you do, you definitely meet a gruesome end. Telling you any more would spoil the engaging insanity of the series, the pilot of which was directed without any particular style by once-buzzed about film director M. Night Shyamalan.
My absolute favorite aspect of the series is its unpredictability. In its forth week, it has introduced and disposed of celebrity guest stars like yesterday’s spoiled ham. And it’s brilliant for doing that. Dead or alive, the cast features Carla Gugino, Toby Jones, Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard, Justin Kirk, and Hope Davis, among others. Throats are cut in a town hall-like ceremony. Bodies are electrocuted. People are run over, shot, and dragged into the dark by a mysterious entity. All by episode four. It’s difficult to criticize such a show that wears its insanity heavily on its sleeve (Melissa Leo’s wackadoodle performance is alone worth your time). It knows it isn’t great, and it totally doesn’t give a shit.
To me, if this doesn’t illustrate the perfect fun summer series, then I don’t know my television.
The Whispers airs Monday’s at 10pm on ABC. Wayward Pines airs Thursday’s at 9pm on FOX. Both are available for streaming from their network websites.