Random people continue to receive unaired pilots on their cable boxes, and some of them are willing to write to us about them. Here’s “Super Genius” with Coax’s first review of UPN and Michael Piller’s version of Stephen King’s “The Dead Zone.”
REVIEW: UPN PILOT FOR STEPHEN KING’S “THE DEAD ZONE”
BY THE SUPER GENIUS
My phone rang just after noon today. Caller ID told me it was from someone named PRIVATE in area code 702. Whatever. I answered. It was a survey firm (herein, "The Survey People") that briefly quizzed me on my age. I’m 31 and the max age they were looking for was under 34. Lucky me. They then told me there was going to be a TV pilot shown on cable channel 74 at 6 PM. I didn’t even know there was a channel 74. It was way past the encoded pay channels that I don’t pay. I flipped to 74 just to make sure it existed and I was surprised to see (at that moment) really bad infomercials. I’d been hoping to catch Memento at the theater that evening and didn’t know what to expect from this mystery pilot, but for some reason I told them I’d do it. The last thing they asked was, “You do like Star Trek, don’t you?” Does the pope wear a big hat? Duh! My phone number is listed under Jean-Luc Picard in the phone book. Take a guess.
6 P.M. rolled around and a short intro let me know that the pilot had nothing to do with Star Trek. However, that didn’t bother me since it turned out this was the pilot for a new series based on the Stephen King novel The Dead Zone. When I saw Anthony Michael Hall’s name flash across the screen, I made verbal approval sounds and grunts. I then regained my composure and hunkered down to pay attention since The Survey People were going to quiz me on this later.
The first scene was set in the past and featured kids ice skating on a lake. I was immediately reminded of the ice skating flashback scenes from the original Christopher Walken version of the film. Instead of paying attention to the dramatic implications of the scene, a child actor portraying a young Johnny Smith gave possibly the worst performance I’d ever seen. I was so distracted by the kids weak performance and delivery, I almost didn’t care what he was saying. Eventually the kid bonks his head on the ice and then wakes up shortly thereafter. He keeps yelling ‘Don’t go after it’ or something as he regains consciousness. A little girl by his side shrugs, either not understanding what he’s saying, or in shock by his bad acting. Her acting wasn’t so hot, either, don’t get me wrong. A generic Adult in Charge in this scene also takes a turn at the cheese river of acting. ‘’This isn’t good,’’ I thought to myself. A kid does wind up falling into the ice, but he is saved by the Adult in Charge character and lives to see tomorrow -- no thanks to little Johnny who hadn’t really done anything to prevent the event from happening. Adult in Charge guy tells Johnny to go get some x-rays. Johnny and the little girl walk off. Fade to black. What the hell just happened? Was that supposed to be character development? So, little Johnny is psychic now? Why don’t I remember this from the movie? I hadn’t seen it since literally back in the 80’s, nor had I ever read King’s version, but I loved the original film. Christopher Walken’s performance, one of his most likeable roles, was unforgettable. So this bastardization of the source material really put me off.
Then it got worse. But don’t get me wrong. It gets better later…
Johnny is suddenly all grown up and a teacher. He’s teaching his students about photosynthesis by holding class in a tree. Note to the director – there was no ladder under that tall tree. How about some credibility? A Boss in Charge of Johnny character tells him to get his ass and his class out of the tree before there’s an insurance issue. Johnny’s girlfriend Sara, a choir teacher at the same school, catches Johnny’s wacky antics through the window after one of her students stops the class from singing ‘’Mr. Sandman’’ to look out the window at wacky Johnny. Yes, that’s a clever song to use, but instead of thinking about how Johnny was going to be high-fiving Mr. Sandman soon, I kept thinking of Halloween II and Back to the Future, both of which use that song. Regaining focus, I noticed that the actress playing Johnny’s girlfriend Sara was Nicole De Boer who played Ezri Dax on Deep Space Nine. Apparently she is supposed to be the same character that was at Little Johnny’s side 5 minutes earlier when he was a crappy child actor. Are you following me? Eventually it is quickly established that Johnny loves Sara and wants to marry her. Also, and this seems to have been thrown in, Johnny can predict numbers to a minor degree. He helps some kids from his class at the carnival regain their money by busting the bank of a carnival game wheel. He manages to make plenty of money by guessing the next number drawn over and over. Hmmm.. but wait a minute, isn’t this gambling? Are these kids supposed to be gambling for money? I thought this was Maine, not Vegas? Oh, well. So, anyway, this ‘’gift’’ has never been exploited and apparently never comes up for more than a few minutes throughout his life.
Eventually Johnny kisses Sara goodbye and tells her he’s going to go rent some movies. I am now half expecting a plug for Blockbuster Video to occur. Instead, Johnny gets in his car and takes off. He starts driving down the road. An eighteen-wheeler with nothing particularly wrong comes around the corner. No indication that there was a mechanical problem. The driver is never seen. Johnny just looks up from the steering wheel like a deer in headlights and BAM! It happens very suddenly. I didn’t expect it. Two points, UPN. It’s after this scene in the pilot that things take a turn for the better.
The basic premise of the original Dead Zone returns once Johnny awakens from a coma that has consumed 6 years of his life. He immediately notices that he enters a trance-like state whenever someone touches him. Hall’s acting is touch and go at first, but he never completely loses credibility. Hell, I’d be overwhelmed if I could see bad things happen before they happen. Johnny can see events from the past and future as they flood into his mind and overtake reality. When in a trance, he appears to physically enter the reality of his vision and become a passive observer. Perspective for Johnny now has a fourth dimension. Everything that happens in the pilot from here on out was very well done. To avoid spoiling the show for anyone, I’ll stop here with my detailed synopsis. Suffice to say, I was blown away by the drama and the special effects that followed. You also have to be patient (for a few minutes, anyway) about some of the things Johnny claims to know about. The director cleverly doesn’t show you what Johnny sees at first and how he can claim to know something after just touching someone. Eventually, however, you do go with Johnny on a journey and experience what he sees. And it’s really cool.
The incidental music, which appears to be the same Michael Kamen work from the original, is still just as eerie. A key fire sequence from the movie is recreated for the pilot, although I would have to say that the Walken version is still superior. Flames leaping up to his bed as he observes water boiling in a fishbowl, Walken pleads, "Your daughter… is screaming. Your house is burning. It's not too late." The pilot version features Hall in a similar situation but it is muted and shortened, perhaps due to cost savings? At least that’s what I hope. Another comparison worth mentioning is how Walken reacts when told that Sara was now married. He turns away and cries, crawling into a near fetal position. The pain in the scene is intense. Hall definitely looks disappointed, but the severe emotional impact is delivered in a different sequence. No fetal position. Sorry.
Some of my disappointments might be due to the fact that I’m seeing the same story done a second time without any real significant difference in the presentation. The real treat from this pilot will be that it will allow extending the story beyond the original plot and expanding the characters. Johnny will obviously live well beyond the pilot (as opposed to the fate that befell Walken’s character in the movie version).
There are still some issues I had with the acting and characters in this pilot, but the dialog and pace completely improve after the initial exposition was over and Johnny awakens from the coma. A very long teaser for the next episode was tacked onto the end. It indicated that Johnny would soon be become an outcast because of his gift. Other minor roles are brought into the story line. Some of it has to do with his mother’s friend, a preacher who has a very minor role as Johnny’s guardian during the pilot. The preacher’s presence is confusing and he doesn’t do very much. Johnny’s mom passes away while he’s dead (but you don’t really miss her since she was in just one scene for 30 seconds). I suspect they are planning the preacher character as a recurring antagonist for upcoming episodes. Either way, I was left not really caring about him based on what he did and didn’t do in the pilot. Overall, I’d rate this a must see when it does come out. The Survey People called me back and asked a million questions about the characters and what I thought about the story. They took detailed notes of everything I said (which was really nice). I wonder if anything I recommended will be used. I told them to trash everything before Johnny’s coma and try again. It won’t be a complete loss, but I think you can build the Sara-Johnny relationship by replacing the child actors and dumping the bump on the head as a kid idea. What are they thinking, anyway? They should save that scene for another episode and not just throw it away in order to introduce the character. I’ve heard that Dead Zone will air immediately following the new series Star Trek: Enterprise on UPN. If that’s true, that’s a two-hour block of my life I need to put on order, hold the cheese. Please.
For some reason, I hope they guest star Molly Ringwald in an episode. Hall could guess the color of her underwear and recreate his funky Farmer Ted “king of the dipshits” dance moves.
Okay, fine. I’ll go now.