Image B+ Sound A- Extras A
"Valley of the Shadow," "Descent," "Ascent," "The Outsider," "Precipitate," "Scars," "Misbegotten," "Cabin Pressure," "The Man Who Never Was," "Dead Men Tell Tales," "Playing God," "Zion," "The Storm," "Plague," "Deja Voodoo," "The Hunt," "The Mountain," "The Combination," "Visions"
by Walter Chaw I'll say this at the get-go, that "The Dead Zone", the television series, will never completely escape the shadow of David Cronenberg's enduring feature film adaptation of the Stephen King source novel, and that Anthony Michael Hall is a pale substitute for Christopher Walken, particularly for Walken at what might be the actor's finest hour. Luckily, Hall has an easier time shedding his John Hughes days, having doubled in size (he's still trim, just not Farmer Ted), donned a black leather pea coat (mine found the Salvation Army bin about five episodes in--I never, ever want to look like Hall in Vancouver playing Johnny Smith), and acquired a Vulcan arch to his brow that all but screams "serious actor." Yet there's something since "The X-Files" that rubs me wrong about most American shows shot north of the 49th Parallel: the genericness of the setting doesn't scream Anytown, USA so much as "Canada: it's cheaper and blander up here." Lacking atmosphere and vibrancy, "The Dead Zone" is an extrapolation, especially in Season Two, of the further adventures of John Smith, a reluctant clairvoyant who can touch any person or thing (including air, which raises its own set of problems/questions) and summon up visions of past or future that inevitably put Johnny in the position of a powder-dipped saint in a Mexican parade.
Season 1 deals with all the particulars of King's book save one. Schoolteacher by vocation, saint by central casting, John Smith has, as he'll call it in a recurring prologue, "the perfect life." He's engaged to elfin waif Sarah (Nicole de Boer), who is pregnant with his pod JJ (Spencer Achtymichuk, the worst child actor in North America once Jake Lloyd can vote, at which point Paul Walker can also breathe a sigh of relief), and he has a job helping people. Unlucky for Johnny, he gets a six-year trip to Coma-ville, during which time Sarah marries stolid cop Walt (Chris Bruno), and after which Johnny awakens with the gift of CGI-aided, plane-taking-off-scored second-sight. The detail from King left to founder is Johnny's relationship with politico Greg Stillson (Sean Patrick Flannery), a handshake between them revealing to the leather-clad Eagle Scout that once elected president, Stillson will become the architect of the Apocalypse. It's this tension that will carry several of the episodes of the second season (generally the one that finds a show hitting its stride instead of, as is the case here, a wall), as Johnny tries to undermine Stillson's political aspirations while facing the no-brainer decision to either settle down with super-hot reporter Dana (Kristen Dalton) or keep pining after bat-faced Sarah. It's just one of a couple of no-brainers that "The Dead Zone" mistakes for texture. You can call me un-romantic if you want, but some things only make sense if you have a stable of extremely talented writers. "The Dead Zone"--and this is being generous--has a handful of barely serviceable writers at the best of times.
Take "Descent" (2.2) and "Ascent" (2.3), for instance, together comprising a two-parter about teenagers stuck in a mine that is so hysterically over-written that a good third of the dialogue could be elided without any ripple effect. (Same with at least two auxiliary characters that serve no purpose but to be someone the editors can cut to for blank reaction shots.) Ditto the impenetrable religious/It's A Wonderful Life gobbledygook of "Zion" (2.12), guest starring Lou Gossett Jr. in a spot as a preacher-man in which he looks permanently on the verge of giving birth as he did in Enemy Mine. The season premiere has potential, what with its tale of a religious wacko believing that Johnny is a prophet (to prove it, he'll kidnap some kid and have Johnny find him), but like most of the moral ambiguity with which "The Dead Zone" flirts now and again, the discussion of how dangerous cults form around a Pringle shaped like the Virgin Mary, much less an actual "seer," is dropped like a hot potato in the next episode, despite concluding with Johnny walking provocatively out into a blazing blast of white light. A set-up for Johnny's reluctant transformation into the hand of God? Yes--but it's not in the cards for this series to step-up to the plate, too content as it is to let the suggestion marinate into eternity. Or season 3.
Because it's the kind of show that provides for our hero two sidekicks in the form of a famous televangelist (Rev. Purdy (David Ogden Stiers)) and an ironic black man/physical therapist Bruce (John L. Adams), there's not an unhappy or challenging ending to be had here. Johnny always decides right while he cheerfully plays god--and the one time he makes a hugely suspect decision (in an episode titled "Playing God" (2.11), natch), the suspect benefactor reassures Johnny that he has indeed done the right thing. It's tedious, at the very least, having a hero incapable of wrong, who always acts altruistically and whose life seems to consist entirely of people and conversations that teach him a pointed lesson. The series resets itself every week: the secret to longevity for a TV show (see also "E.R." and "Law & Order") is to act as though nothing's ever happened in a significantly resonant way so that each subsequent episode can close on the same rim shot. What is a cliffhanger, after all, but the vertical arc interrupted at the midway point? I'd argue that television shows can't function in any other way and still cultivate a large, slavish audience needing the same kind of gratification week after week--except for the example of HBO's "Deadwood", possibly the most nuanced and complex show in the history of the medium. And it's popular, to boot.
But what irks the most about "The Dead Zone" isn't that it's sort of tiresome and goody-goody, and it isn't that it doesn't live up to the almost impossible standard set by HBO's hat-trick of "The Sopranos", "Six Feet Under", and "Deadwood", but that too often it feels as though the writers are jumping the proverbial shark with Johnny's powers simply for the sake of greasing an episode's wheels. Like in "The Outsider" (2.4), when he touches a television set and sees a vision of a new wrinkle medicine causing thousands of birth defects, or in "Cabin Pressure" (2.8), when he feels the air from a jet engine and predicts its imminent demise (if breathing triggers Johnny, what does recirculated air, period, do to him?). The nadir is a metaphorical vision in which he sees parts of Robert Culp's "The Man Who Never Was" (2.9) being "erased"--not by supernatural means, but by the government's efforts to suppress his identity. The most egregious missed opportunity in season two of "The Dead Zone", in fact, isn't the camp meta-recognition with guest star Ally Sheedy's appearance in "Playing God" (why not Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald, too? I'm sure they could use the paycheck), but the fumbling of a fingerless Culp at least recognizing his seminal moment in "The Outer Limits"' "Demon with a Glass Hand."
That's the fanboy in me talking, of course. What the critic would say is that "The Dead Zone" has innumerable chances for Johnny to do something selfish, something totally self-serving, with his powers, like sacrificing a few children in a bus for the possibility of love in his life, or letting Sarah's husband die in order to rekindle a relationship with her and his estranged son. Far from alienating the audience, acts of small-mindedness would actually serve to humanize Johnny (best would've been Johnny supporting candidate Gerald McRaney even though he sees a Vietnam mini-Mai Lai in his past). Without it, we're left with a pale, benevolent, omniscient, faultless god that, like all such spit-shined deities, is increasingly hard to support as time wears on.
Special mention should go to the cliffhanger episode that brings up the rear of Season Two as guest star Frank Whaley, appearing briefly as a mysterious figure in the two episodes leading up to the finale, unveils himself as another seer in Johnny's mode, but one based a few years in the future, post-nuclear holocaust. And, fascinatingly, when he and Johnny hold the nub of Johnny's cane, they can communicate with one another over the temporal abyss. If this is where Season 3 is going, I'm curious in spite of myself. Here, in one episode (the only one of the season, let's face it), is the full, tripped-out potential of the premise brought to at least partial fruition: if it's not going to let Johnny be human, if it's just going to fart around with bigger issues like faith and destiny, then it should have the decency to let the geeks get into time continuums and alternate universes. At the very minimum, let's hope that the series avoids more debacles like "Dead Men Tell Tales" (2.10), wherein a James Horner-esque penny whistle and more bad acting than was actually in Titanic pave the way for a howlingly-misdirected tribute to James Cameron's kitsch classic.
"The Dead Zone: The Complete Second Season" finds its way home again in a five-disc set housed in a gatefold that fits comfortably inside a cardboard shell. Each hour is presented in a nice 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer boasting of the bright, Invasion of the Body Snatchers plastic fantastic that Canadian location shoots produce. The lack of real care taken in porting the series to DVD, however, crops up in a few unsolved moiré patterns, frequent combing of the image at edit-points, and some fairly bad pixellation on busy backgrounds. It is what it is. DD 5.1 audio similarly does the trick with a minimum of fireworks, but on occasion it'll surprise with the ambient footfall, or an explosion of pigeons from the rear channel.
Disc 1 contains a short featurette, actually three (collectively called "The Making of an Episode"), which talks about how an episode begins with an idea and ends with a trainwreck. The first segment, "Script Writing Process" (5 mins.), fails to mention why it is that 30% of every episode is ugly fat begging to be trimmed. "Casting" (6 mins.) is essentially a long interview with Vancouver casting director Sue Brouse that, against all odds, proves to be a pretty good look at what it is that a casting director does, while in "Costumes" (7 mins.), costume designer Cynthia Summers tells us a lot of what we probably could have figured out on our own but don't mind hearing anyway. Disc 2 continues this virtual first day of film school with "Location Scouting" (7 mins.), featuring "Project Greenlight"-familiar shots of crew holding Starbucks cups whilst standing around arguing about nothing much.
"VFX Meeting" (7 mins.) is the director and the visual F/X supervisor sitting in an office going over the script and storyboard, brainstorming ideas on how to visualize what's been written. Disc 3 includes "Production Meeting" (6 mins.), essentially more guys in sweaters drinking coffee in a crowded boardroom, taking conference calls and going over the script. Disc 5 covers "Production" (10 mins.), an overview wherein Hall's elucidation of the steps he takes to prepare (part Method, part study hour) joins other cast & crew auto-deconstructions that run the gamut from "not helpful" to "hmmm, I almost care about that." Disc 5 wraps things up with the self-explanatory "Editing" (9 mins.), the 7-minute "Visual Effects Materials" (a lesson in DIY tornadoes), and "Sound Mixing" (6 mins.), a piece that tackles one of the most misunderstood elements of the process with grace. Cast Bios, Production Team Bios, and text-based press kit fluff ("From the Desk of the Executive Producers") round out all five platters.
The real pain comes, though, in the discovery that commentary tracks have been diligently recorded for every single, mother-scratching episode of the season and that other episode-specific goodies decorate these discs. Here goes nothing:
2.1 "Valley of the Shadow" - Participants: Guest psycho Eric Schaeffer, executive producer Lloyd Segan, writer/producer Michael Taylor Highlight: When Schaeffer, who has the least to lose, comments that a process shot of Johnny standing in the middle of a post-apocalyptic National Mall is "Washington DC after four more years of the Bush administration." A cheap shot, much appreciated, though not by Segan and Taylor. Lowlight: Taylor's repeated, desperate pleas to get back on topic, whereupon he steadfastly regurgitates plot.
2.2 "Descent" - Participants: VFX Supervisor Jaison Stritch, producer Robert Petrovicz Highlight: Petrovicz's faux-childlike faux-delight at how convincing the unconvincing mine set looks. Lowlight: The lengthy confusion and conversation about whether or not the opening montage is composed of clips from season one or some mysterious ether where "The Dead Zone" is made independent of this dimension's incarnation. This episode is also gifted with a storyboard comparison that runs two minutes against the episode's action sequences.
2.3 "Ascent" - Participants: Guest star James Handy, Chris Bruno ("Sheriff Walt"), (over)writer Jill Blotevogel Highlight: The sly undercurrent of self-knowledge that suggests that at least two of these three people know what a piece of crap this episode is. Lowlight: How Blotevogel seems just a touch too involved with the fictional lives of these paper-thin characters. "I yelled 'Oh no, Walt!' when that happened!"
2.4 "The Outsider" - Participants: Anthony Michael Hall, supervising producer Shawn Piller, supervising producer/writer Craig Silverstein Highlight: Confession that most of the crew will work for fifteen hours and then go home and play one another on XBox into the wee hours. Lowlight: The weak-ass rationale for how Johnny touching a television could offer this episode's horrific glimpse into the possible future.
2.5 "Precipitate" - Participants: Hall and John L. Adams ("Physical therapist Bruce") Highlight: Adams coaxes Hall a little out of his shell, making him considerably less stuffed-shirt. "Yo, 'Dead Zone' fans, this is the homey edition of the commentary track!" You take what you can get. Lowlight: The ongoing conversation about whether people go to the commentary tracks first before watching the show proper, leading Adams to narrate the action regardless. That, plus long stretches of stupid silence explained by, "This is us watching, y'all." Another two-minute storyboard comparison caps the episode.
2.6 "Scars" - Participants: Track 1: Director Armand Mastroianni and Silverstein; Track 2: Sean Patrick Flanery ("Stillson") and DVD producer Robert Chynoweth Highlights: Track 1: Silverstein works as sort of an interviewer, drawing Mastroianni out to an extent--a tactic I always appreciate. Track 2: The unforced exuberance/enthusiasm that Flanery brings to the shooting match is infectious, particularly his off-topic adoration of Will Ferrell's imitation of James Lipton. Lowlights: Track 1: Mastroianni getting drawn out too often means that Silverstein bends over backwards to kiss ass. Track 2: The comparison of Gerald McRaney with Gene Hackman. Storyboards (3 mins.) accompany this episode as well.
2.7 "Misbegotten" - Participants: Director Nick Marck and Segan Highlight: Segan playing the boob so that Marck can explain terms like "second unit." Lowlight: Marck's admission that he had to look up the meaning of the term "Misbegotten." In addition to a storyboard sequence, an interview with Tracey Gold (2 mins.) sees the actress giving an extended plot recap as well as one of those crinkly-eyed apologias for her character that stinks of canned junket babble.
2.8 "Cabin Pressure" - Participants: Track 1: Blotevogel (she puts the "Bloat" in "Blotevogel"!), Stritch, director Mike Rohl, DP Stephen McNutt; Track 2: David Ogden Stiers ("Rev. Purdy") and Chynoweth Highlights: Track 1: With so many people on board, there isn't much room for downtime. Track 2: Chynoweth is a good prod and I appreciate Stiers's confession that he doesn't watch the show. His concern for a stuntwoman is warm and genuine. Lowlights: Track 1: And yet, there's a surprising amount of downtime, anyhow. Call it a mixed blessing. Track 2: "That shaking is so real." Another short storyboard comparison (3 mins.) and an interview with Mike Rohl (4 mins.) extend the agony. Rohl, like Gold before him, spends almost the whole time summarizing the episode. What do you suppose the purpose of shit like this is? Your guess is as good as mine, but I'm suspecting it has something to do with pimping the box set. You can't TIVO some guy named Mike Rohl reminding you of what you just saw now, can you?
2.9 "The Man Who Never Was" - Participants: Hall and guest star Robert Culp Highlight: Culp reveals that he was on his way to becoming a cartoonist when acting intervened. That, and I love Culp. Lowlight: "Demon with a Glass Hand" is never once mentioned and there's some talk about how hard it was to figure out how to pronounce "Grissom." Yep. An interview with Culp (3 mins.) is, yep, a long recap of what we've just seen. Remove sharp objects.
2.10 "Dead Men Tell Tales" - Participants: Petrovicz and Segan Highlight: Segan mocks the opening montage, apparently as tired of it as we are by this point--the pair then proceeds to flirt around criticizing the piece as "too theatrical" or, on the other side, too influenced by "Law & Order". Lowlight: The entire episode is a lowlight, this stupid friggin' homage to Titanic that, like the last episode, casts Hall in various period noir aspects to community theatre affect. The guys seem to sense it, and the fact that you only get a couple of suits commenting on it makes this both an evasive commentary (in the worst sense of the word) and a useless one as well. I was tasked once with facilitating a Q&A between the producer of a few horrible Canadian films and a live audience; believe me when I tell you that producers, by and large, don't know shit about shit. They write checks, they don't make art. Ask them about their product and they'll try to sell it to you. A deleted scene (3 mins.) of Hall getting beat up--which is missed--and a useless interview with director Gloria Muzio (3 mins.) append this episode.
2.11 "Playing God" - Participants: Hall and...Ally Sheedy! Highlight: So these guys like each other and hearing them together is a lot like a wormhole back to my own high school/John Hughes days. Nostalgia snuck up on me unawares. I love Sheedy--she's underestimated--and the little dialogue about High Art embedded herein is hilarious and authentic. Lowlight: I'm putting away the snark gun, I really like this commentary track--a lot better than the episode it decorates, it goes without saying. A short storyboard comparison (2 mins.) accompanies a useless deleted scene (1 min.) and an interview with Sheedy (3 mins.) that was most likely provoked by an off-camera question that went something like, "Okay, describe in three minutes what your character is like and what happens in this show. Do you want some shrimp cocktail?" Sheedy, though, does touch on The Breakfast Club and her loyalty to Hall, rendering this the most significant interview segment in the entire package.
2.12 "Zion" - Participants: Hall, guest star Lou Gossett, Jr., Segan Highlight: Gossett saying, "That's what I do," in response to all the adulation offered by Hall and Segan. Lowlight: All the adulation. The interview with Gossett (3 mins.) is more of the same old same old.
2.13 "The Storm"--Participants: Director Michael Robison, Stritch, Petrovicz Highlight: The chance to see Kristen Dalton (left, with de Boer) in her bikini again. Okay, I'm a pig. Lowlight: Someone making a "rrrowr!" noise to indicate the onset of a catfight. Pig I may be, but I stop short at doing the scratchy-gesture whenever two women get into an argument. Storyboards (2 mins.) and a pair of deleted scenes (7 mins.) make up the episode's bells and whistles; the deleted scenes are mostly just extended exchanges that desperately need the company on the cutting room floor.
2.14 "Plague" - Participants: Guest star Stephen Tobolowsky and Blotevogel Highlight: Inveterate character actor Tobolowsky's performance in this episode and his professionalism in the commentary do not go unappreciated. Lowlight: Blotevogel's constant amazement at things in the show as well as her barely-disguised pride over being one of the first writers to tackle the nothing relationship between Johnny and his tabula rasa rascal. Storyboards (3 mins.) and an interview with Tobolowsky (3 mins.) are more of the same, if the latter is delivered in Tobolowsky's thoughtful style.
2.15 "Deja Voodoo" - Participants: Hall, lovely guest star Reiko Aylesworth, co-executive producer/writer Karl Schaefer Highlight: Hall rightly mentions that a Groundhog Day sort of premise is at work in this episode, although it's actually more like that episode of "The X Files" where Scully and Mulder have to stop a bank robbery that keeps going wrong. Lowlight: Hall saying, "You're a very intelligent young lady" to Aylesworth in what must be the world's most condescending pick-up line. An interview with Aylesworth (3 mins.) begins, "I play Natalie Connor and..." "And" you know the rest.
2.16 "The Hunt" - Participants: Director James Head, Petrovicz, Piller Highlight: As "The Hunt" covers Johnny being recruited to hunt down a never-named Bin Laden, a reverie concerning the importance of Starbucks in greasing the production wheels comes as a much-appreciated breath of levity. Ironic that the USA network pushed back the airdate of this episode, considering that the invasion of Iraq doesn't seem to have anything to do with hunting Uncle Osama. Lowlight: The fascination with the term "poop plant" to refer to their waste treatment plant location.
2.17 "The Mountain" - Participants: Director Rohl, Stritch, Petrovicz Highlight: The description of underwater stock footage of fish as a "$50,000 shot." Lowlight: The continued excitement about the way that Johnny's visions are represented. Storyboards (2 mins.) and an interview with Scott William Winters (3 mins.) provide more stultifying nada.
2.18 "The Combination" - Participants: ESPN boxing commentator/trainer Teddy Atlas and writer/producer Mike Taylor Highlight: Atlas lends a good deal of street credibility to the whole onanistic mess as Taylor babbles on and on in omega-male adulation, only to have Atlas swoop in with his Tony Soprano palooka charm. Lowlight: Taylor's litany of hopeful "Y'know...y'know?"s. An interview with guest star Greg Serano tells you everything you need to know about what happened in the episode you just watched.
2.19 "Visions" - Participants: Silverstein and Piller Highlight: The admission early on that the rank of "supervising producer" has no meaning. Lowlight: All the adulation. A deleted scene (2 mins.) features more of the toothy (and toothsome) Ione Skye--which is good. It joins two interviews, one with Skye (2 mins.)--still good, although it offers nothing of particular nourishment--and the other with Frank Whaley (4 mins.). Whaley clearly struggles against the constraints of this interview format, his crusty demeanour sneaking through now and again.
On to Season 3. Originally published: June 7, 2005.