Nothing to fear: ‘The Whispers’ and ‘Wayward Pines’ miss the mark

the-whispersBy JIM SABATASO

[A version of this review appears in the July 2, 2015, edition of the Rutland Reader.]

All I wanted was a summer TV fling. Something fun and a little trashy that wouldn’t require too much thought yet wasn’t so dumb it insulted my intelligence. So imagine my excitement when I saw the previews for The Whispers and Wayward Pines. Creepy kids. Mysterious towns. Spielberg. Shyamalan. Could one of these shows be my summer fling? Maybe both?

I tuned in with managed expectations. Even in this new age of TV programming, when Netflix and HBO release prestige shows in June, broadcast networks still don’t premier their A material in the summer — not even genre shows. So while I wasn’t expecting the next Lost or Fringe, I was hopeful these shows would still be entertaining. So much for managed expectations.

The Whispers, ABC’s latest drama feels like it was custom made for Lost fans who now have young children. Citing Stephen Spielberg as an executive producer and using a Ray Bradbury short story as source material, the series has a lot going for it on paper.

The premise of the series is relatively simple: a group of children in suburban Washington, D.C., carry out orders carry out seemingly random orders given to them by an imaginary friend named Drill who communicates via (sigh) light fixtures. The tasks result in a chain reaction of events that seem to be leading toward some sort of supernatural end game. Four episodes in, it’s unclear what that is exactly.

As silly as all this sounds, it has potential. Unfortunately, showrunners Soo Hugh and Zack Estrin want so badly to show you how mysterious and important The Whispers is they neglect to do the work to earn it. Instead, the show relies on contrived situations (and a hand-holding music score) to force tension and spur action, putting characters in peril and expecting us to care about them despite not bothering to show us why we should.

The reveal late in the pilot that all these characters are connected in some way and a particular character might not be as dead as previously believed should surprise; that score certainly wants us to be. But it underwhelms, and fails to make you want to find out what happens next.

Lily Rabe, bless her, does what she can as FBI agent Claire Bennigan. (Bennigan? Really?) She’s proven her ability to make the best out of half-baked ideas and bad writing throughout her run on American Horror Story. (Even at its worst, AHS manages to entertain.) Here, however, she can’t escape the crushing dullness and rote predictability.

The series is also bogged down by the boring relationship drama of its adult characters. There is a love triangle, an absent father, and enough fretful white women to pack a Whole Foods. Seriously, this show is blindingly white. With the exception of two minor supporting actors, there are no major characters who are people of color. Perhaps it’s my watching this show so closer to the abundantly diverse Sense8 that makes the absence of diversity so obvious here. Still, mix it up, ABC. Just because you gave Shonda Rimes Thursday night, doesn’t excuse the rest of the week.

When the grownups aren’t brooding or looking longingly at each other, they’re caught up in bureaucratic and inter-agency pissing matches that only serve to pad the thin plot — the original Bradbury story was only 10 pages. Stretching that to 13 episodes is going to take some work. And from what I’ve seen so far, I’m not sure The Whispers is up for it.

Wayward-Pines-001_SFW

Wayward Pines is easily the more enjoyable of these two shows, if only because it so enthusiastically leans into its inherent ridiculousness. Of course, with M. Night Shyamalan as executive producer, ridiculous is the name of the game.

To this show’s credit, it’s also fairly ambitious. Matt Dillon plays Ethan Burke, a Secret Service agent who wakes up in the strange Idaho town of Whispering Pines with no memory of how he got there. Things only get stranger as he discovers he’s unable to leave or even get an outside line from one of the town’s many ringing phones, which MUST ALWAYS BE ANSWERED. There are a lot of silly rules like that adding the general ethereal menace (or silliness) of the show.

As Burke dives deeper down the rabbit hole, he makes a quick ally in Beverly (Juliette Lewis), a waitress who is equally distrustful of her surroundings. Lewis is a fine actress, but this role doesn’t really give her much to do other than explain things.

Burke’s antagonists are of the mysterious, scenery-chewing sort. Terrence Howard plays the town’s sheriff, a soft-spoken sadist with penchant for ice cream. Melissa Leo does her best Nurse Ratched impression as Nurse Pam, which is fun to watch with even if it’s not the most original character.

Toby Jones also shows up as Dr. Jenkins, a pleasant, unassuming psychologist who will likely play a bigger role in the back half of the season given what we ultimately find out about him.

With a cast stacked with so much talent, it’s easy to be drawn in. But the show doesn’t do much with them beside use them for cannon fodder. Without spoiling too much, two of those characters don’t make it past episode three. It supposed to be shocking, but at this point in TV, killing off a big actor and supposed central character early in a series is hardly novel.

Overall, the acting is pretty overwrought and heavy handed. The show suffers from too many characters who lack common sense, a common malady of poorly written genre shows that prioritize plot advancement over character development. Characters put themselves in perilous situations for no good reason other than to service the plot. Angsty teens run off into the night. Husbands withhold vital information from their wives leading to jealous confrontations. Like The Whispers, this shows is more concerned with its central premise than fleshing out its characters.

The first couple episodes do a good job illustrating Burke’s disorientation and increasing sense of dismay. The show has a moody, menacing look that is effectively conveyed — this really is a pretty show. There are shades of Lost, Twin Peaks, and The Prisoner here. Indeed, early on I even suspected Shyamalan might actually be attempting a remake of that classic 1960s British drama as all the elements were there: government agent held captive, mysterious town with arcane rules, random druggings. And while I can’t say I would have been on board with a remake, it might have proved more fascinating than what we get here.

By episode five, you discover just what is going on. Unfortunately, how the show decides to reveal the town’s secrets violates the rule of Show Don’t Tell so hard it feels deliberate. I can appreciate the desire to get not drag out things out, but using an orientation video as an exposition dump is just lazy. (Compare this to the DHARMA videos on Lost that only raised more questions with each answer revealed.)

We also get an explanation of why the town’s big secret must be maintained. Similar to The Whispers children here are the recipients of special knowledge. But the adults can’t ever know the truth because they can’t handle it. (Cue eye roll.)

And that’s where I checked out. Without giving away too much, this is a monster story with an unlikely setting. The specifics, however, are pretty dumb. And the reason for bringing people to this town in the first place starts to unravel when you start pulling the threads.

I’m willing to give Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt here. This may all be a red herring. There may be yet another twist to come. Though I suspect not. Let’s be honest, Shyamalan may have dazzled audiences early on with The Sixth Sense, but his subsequent projects have failed to recapture imaginations in the same way. Whispering Pines is no different. While Shyamalan can still present gripping concepts, he continues to stumble in the execution.

CHECK IT OUT: The Whispers airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on ABC. Wayward Pines airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. Catch up on previous episodes of both series on Hulu.

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