Thursday, June 4, 2015

Pilot Review: The Whispers

The Whispers (Mondays at 10:00 on ABC)

There's not much that can be as creepy as a child. Look at The Shining, The Omen, Poltergeist, Children of the Corn... kids are terrifying, whether they're possessed by a demonic force or talking to themselves. The Whispers creator Soo Hugh (whose past writing credits include the delightfully weird The River and CBS's smash sci-fi series Under the Dome) knows this, and she gives us a host of them in the pilot. But an adorable little girl named Harper, who tries to kill her mother, is only the beginning of this twisted, suspenseful ride.

 Someone is telling the children of Maryland to kill their parents. FBI child specialist Claire Bennigan (American Horror Story's Lily Rabe) is called into investigate after a months-long hiatus during which she dealt with the disappearance of her husband. Harper, who set up a trap in her treehouse for her mother to fall through, insists the attempted murder was a game she was playing with Drill, her invisible friend who communicates through the lights. Claire digs deeper and finds a similar case where a young boy built a bomb and accidentally blew himself up... all at the urging of "Drill."

Across the ocean in Africa, an agent with the Defense Department (Barry Sloane, Revenge) is called to the desert where a crashed American plane has been discovered in a cradle of petrified lightning that could not have been created by any known earthly heat source. Meanwhile, a seemingly insane man with no memory and no identification beyond a host of tattoos covering his body (Milo Ventimiglia, Heroes) passes out and is taken to the hospital, where he meets Harper, who somehow knows more about him than he knows about himself.

The Whispers is a twisty tale with a lot of moving parts, all of which seem disparate until the end of the pilot when everything ties together in a way that I never saw coming. It's the kind of escapist thriller that's really welcome in the summer months. It's not the best show I've ever seen, but it's addictive as hell. I couldn't rush through the commercials quick enough to see what would happen next, and I'm even more curious after the pilot's final reveal. Soo Hugh's borrows elements of the "imaginary friend" genre from several sources (the demon from The Exorcist and the ghosts of The Amityville Horror were the first that sprung to my mind), but the added creepiness of Drill persuading these kids to do unspeakable things adds a freshness to the show. Mark Romanek, the legendary music video director making his television directing debut, gets some amazing shots and does really cool work with colors. My personal favorite is a shot of a girl sitting inside a set of tubes on a playground talking with Drill; she's alone at the intersection of several brightly colored tubes with the sun pounding down on them from the outside, creating a beautiful neon glow that directly contrasts the darkness of the conversation she's having with her new friend.

The only problem I have with The Whispers so far is that the pilot didn't really feel like an episode of television or like an introduction to a series; it felt more like the first hour in a movie, where the foundation is laid so that the second half can amp up the action. It's rushed, introducing a half-dozen storylines and revealing their connections in the first hour alone. A lot of plot threads that I assumed would be developed over the season, such as Drill possibly contacting Claire's own young son, are already set in motion after just one episode. Where does the show go from here? It has the potential to burst from everything Hugh has stuffed inside. But still, it's a really fun ride, made all the better by a touching, warm central performance from Rabe and some surprisingly grounded, not-at-all annoying performances by the three child leads. If the pilot is any indication of what craziness is ahead on The Whispers, I'm fully on board.

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