The Dead Zone
Wheel of Fortune (2002) – Robert Lieberman
The first episode of USA’s six season series that attempts to both adapt King’s epic novel to television in long form and also to springboard off King’s premise into new territory. This first episode hews pretty closely to the novel, which, if you haven’t read, you really must. It’s quite possibly King’s very best novel and one of his most mature works. In the happy surprise category is Anthony Michael Hall as the recently comatose, haggard and haunted, limping, pea-coated psychic Johnny Smith. Walken’s performance in the film remains iconic, but Hall is no slouch; you can’t see much of the John Hughes actor left in him, but he’s surprisingly good in the role. The directorial flourishes that take us in and out of his psychic visions are surprisingly well modulated and don’t look fake, which is about all you can ask for television on basic cable. As this one wraps up, Johnny is awake and is being reluctantly manipulated into helping the police catch a serial killer: So far, so novel. We’ll see where it goes from here.
What It Seems (2002) – Robert Lieberman
Things are still pretty taut here. Chris Bruno is a fantastic Walt Bannerman who, in this telling of the story, is married to Johnny’s former fiancée, Sarah. This allows the show good reason to keep Sarah and Johnny’s biological son, now being raised by Walt, in close and it also helps all the police activity carry its own extra weight. Bruno is extremely good and just keeps getting better. An early scene here of Hall and Bruno outside a victim’s house is stellar, all barely hidden animosity and seething frustration.
Quality of Life (2002) – John Lafia
The opening serial killer case wrapped up in the first two episodes, this episode springs into territory not in the novel as Johnny actually attempts to return to his teaching job. But when his visions seem to indicate that one of the school’s star athletes is about to drop dead of a coronary but the doctor’s don’t agree, Johnny is thrust into an unpopular position. This was a low key episode, but pretty good. Chris Masterson, most famous for Malcolm in the Middle, does a good guest spot as the star athlete struggling with his respect for Johnny and his desire to do right by his team.
Enigma (2002) – Michael Robison
In this episode, Johnny helps an old man rediscover the love of his life, a woman he knew in World War II. In the process, Johnny falls in love with the woman himself through the visions he has of her in the past. This is as clumsy as it sounds, culminating in an absolutely terrible sexual vision in which Johnny sort of experiences the man he’s trying to help and the woman he’s looking for having sex decades previously. This is as risible and creepy as it sounds. The production values of the sequences set during the forties are outstanding though; the show is stretching to show that it can pull these money sequences off and they do. Hall does the best he can, which is try to relate the pain of the visions to the pain of his own life and the fact that the woman he loves is now married to someone else. The episode has a bittersweet, poignant close based on this. But the whole episode is a letdown.
Unreasonable Doubt (2002) - Robert Lieberman
As even a cursory glance at the title and knowledge of television tropes will tell you, in this episode, psychic Johnny Smith gets called up for Jury Duty. They have some fun with it, but the episode is so by the numbers, you could probably tell me everything about it right now and you haven't even seen it. Plus, there's a vision late in the episode that could have had real power, as Johnny experiences how it feels to be a defenseless woman sexually assaulted by thugs, but Lieberman muffs it completely. A couple of nice supporting performances help out, but this ain't 12 Angry Men. It is significant for one reason, however, as it is the first episode of the series in which Hall's Johnny is the only recurring character to appear. A great strength of the series as it progresses is the way it allows its cast to appear only when needed; it gives the show a miniseries feel, since the 'standard cast' isn't in every episode. This feels like a watershed a bit, tuning in to a rote crime thriller and seeing only one character from the title sequence actually in the episode. There's really no place for the others and no reason for them; so they aren't here. Simple as that; and how refreshing.