The Dead Zone


I've already blogged about Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and the hope for television's future. To that list, let's add The Dead Zone. This syndicated show, produced with the help of the Government of Canada, has slipped under the radar here in this country. It has been a hit on the USA Network but, in southwestern Ontario, viewers can only find it on the New VR and the New PL during the television dead zone of Friday at 9 pm.

The series is based upon a book by Stephen King, which was itself made into a movie with the same title back in the mid 1980s. This movie, self contained, follows the same basic premise: Johnny Smith, a young man with a good life, has everything taken away from him when he suffers a car accident and lies in a coma for five years. Waking up to find his fiancee married to another man, he also finds himself burdened with a special gift: he can see people's past and futures by touching them. This, along with the stress of trying to get back his life, strain his relations and force him to question his reasons to exist... until he shakes hands with an up-and-coming politician named Greg Stillson who, as president of the United States in the near future, leads the world into World War III.

In the movie (look away if you don't want to be spoiled), Johnny Smith tries to assassinate the politician. He fails and is fatally wounded, but he succeeds in destroying the politician's career, thus saving the world. He dies in his former fiancee's arms. A television series can't exactly carry on from such a movie, and it can't afford to be so closed-ended, so the writers took the original premise, and offer up a few twists.

This time there are more characters in the mix. There's his former fiancee Sarah Bannerman, played by Nicole DeBoer, and her husband Walt, the Sheriff of the small Stephen King-afflicted Maine town. Here there is an opportunity to explore a complex lover's triangle as Sarah clearly still loves John, but remains faithful to her husband. Her husband senses the connection and is troubled by it, but has still come to be a close friend and confident to John as well.

There are other characters close to John as well, including Reverend Gene Purdy (played by David Ogden Stiers), John's legal guardian (John's mother died while he was in his coma) who is somewhat grey -- he is a true believer in God and goodness and he strives for what he feels is best (especially when helping John), but he's not above using John to achieve his own goals. There's Dana Bright, an attractive, cynical reporter who's a developing love interest, and there's Bruce Lewis (John L. Adams) who is John's physiotherapist and friend, and who has received substantial character development recently and who should be an even bigger player in the mix as the series goes on.

The producers have also played around with the flexibility of the concept, dropping Johnny Smith in on a variety of standard television plotlines and giving them an interesting twist. In one case, John Smith found himself on a jury split on whether or not the accused was guilty. But before you can say Twelve Angry Men, one of the jurists realizes who John Smith is, and suddenly the jury splits in a different way: between those who believe he can actually the past and future by touching the items of evidence, and those who think he's just a crazy charlatan. In another episode, John goes out on a blind date set up by ex-fiancee Sarah, and gets cold feet when a brief touch of his date shows the two of them old and married... and bored.

But as well as trying out a number of interesting self-contained concepts, the producers have also added elements that hint at a series of season-spanning plotlines that should give the show a strong developing narrative. There are hints of supernatural forces that have followed John into the real world as he left his coma, and there are references to the original movie, with hints that there may still be a nuclear war in our future.

The series is produced by Michael Piller, of Deep Space Nine fame. Between him and Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica), Deep Space Nine alumni seem to have a hand in a number of promising television shows that have been flying beneath the radar these days. Just as Deep Space Nine knew how to make character relationships interesting and how to run season-spanning arcs, there are hints of similar strengths in The Dead Zone. The series has been good every time we've caught it and, recently, an episode substantially fleshed out one of the lesser regular characters.

The Dead Zone has an interesting concept that's flexible and open-ended (unlike John Doe), that holds promise for developing characters and examining relationships. That alone should make it worth watching. But more than that, it has a hint of that Deep Space Nine magic shared by the revival of Battlestar Galactica. As a result, it deserves far more attention than it's currently getting in my neck of the woods. Television programs as good as The Dead Zone need to be supported and fostered, and I intend to do my part, where possible.

Why John Doe Failed

A number of telefantasy shows have interesting concepts that start strong but die quickly. Compare and contrast John Doe with The Dead Zone. The Dead Zone has somebody waking up from a coma with the ability to see the past and the future by touching things. John Doe has somebody waking up with his head full of factual information and knowledge of how to operate complex equipment... but no knowledge of who he is and where he comes from. John Doe lasted just twelve episodes. The Dead Zone is still going strong.

The problem with John Doe is that its premise is close-ended. The central story is: "who is John Doe and why does he know so much stuff?" That sort of thing makes for a good mini-series but, as a series, one either has to start answering the questions, or duck them entirely. John Doe started to duck, and that killed the interest in the central storyline. The X-Files suffered a similar fate. Despite having the promise of two strong characters, great chemistry, and the ability to bring up a new monster each week, the central conspiracy story started to dominate the series... and it wouldn't go away. And, instead of starting to settle down and answer the questions rising from the central conspiracy, the writers chose to add layer after layer of complication and obfuscation. In the end, many longtime fans of the series (myself included) walked away in disgust. I once called The X-Files the best television series then in production. I have not seen the series finale and I have no interest to.

The Dead Zone has an individual who has psychic visions whenever he touches things, but that isn't the be-all and end-all of the series. The man also woke from a coma to find his fiancee married to another man and in love with both of them. How do the relationships handle the stress of this permanent third wheel? How does a man live if he can't touch anything without seeing visions? What sort of bed does he buy (not a used one, that's for sure. And staying at hotels? That's right out)? And what happens if he has to receive donated blood? Add a few other things in the mix: John's handle on the future of the world; the fact that he's cheated Death and Death might not be that pleased about it, and you have a variety of themes and ideas to explore to your hearts content. You have a series with the ability to grow.

That's the reason why one gimmick show lasts when others fail. Always ask yourself: is the original premise enough to sustain a series? How about a novel? Never try to stretch out a short story into a much larger framework. People tend to notice.

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