Lionsgate // 2003 // 822 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Sandra Dozier (Retired) // July 19th, 2004
"You should see what I see." -- Johnny Smith
Okay, confession time: I was skeptical when Dead Zone first came out...not about the psychic powers of lead character Johnny Smith, but about this series ever having a snowball's chance in heck of being (a) good and (b) do-able as a series-length story, even for just one season.
Boy, was I wrong.
Johnny Smith (Anthony Michael Hall) had the perfect life. He had a loving fiancée, Sarah (Nicole deBoer), a fulfilling job as a teacher, and a great-looking future. It was all taken from him in an instant when a car accident put him in a coma for six years. Against all odds, he woke up, only to find that everything had changed, starting with a dead zone in his brain that was now fully awake and generating visions of the future, present, or past when he touched someone. It doesn't always work, but the visions do come more often than not, and their intensity cannot be ignored.
While Johnny was in the coma that no one expected him to recover from, his mother died, and his fiancée gave birth to their son, who was conceived on the night of Johnny's accident. Sarah accepted his "death" and moved on to marry the town sheriff, Walt Bannerman (Chris Bruno). Trouble is, Walt is a good guy who truly loves Sarah; Johnny's conscience won't let him go for the thing he really wants most -- Sarah, and the family he was supposed to have. He quickly forms a support network, becoming fast friends with Bruce (John L. Adams), a spiritually inclined therapist who helps Johnny recover from his physical infirmities. He is also provided for by the Reverend Purdy (David Ogden Stiers), who was left control of the estate of John's mother when she passed away. He also forms a tentative alliance with a savvy reporter, Dana (Kristen Dalton), a gorgeous redhead with designs on Johnny that go beyond his media appeal.
Johnny's visions seem to have purpose and direction -- he begins to realize that he can help people by preventing calamities or using the information he sees in a vision to help another situation. When he shakes hands with political hopeful Greg Stillson (Sean Patrick Flanery) and foresees a global disaster that Stillson will bring about, he is tormented by the vision and frustrated by the lack of a clear direction as to what his role in preventing it will be.
Stephen King fans will recognize the basic premise of Dead Zone, of course, from his 1979 book of the same name. Although many of the characters are the same, and the pilot for this series recreated most of the events of the book, the series has expanded beyond the original concept. Even better, it has done so without going over the top and by providing solid stories, characters, and situations for Johnny Smith. I am really in awe of what executive producers Michael Piller and Lloyd Segan (also producers on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, another quality television series) have done with the concept and the show. I thought the first season was good, but season two blows it right out of the water.
Season two offers seven episodes more than the usual twelve-episode run. USA (the television network that airs Dead Zone) decided to extend it through the summer, asking for "popcorn" shows that would be suitable as light entertainment for the summer audience. Dead Zone fans, rejoice: The additional episodes add extra dimension to the characters and the story. I can't decide which is my favorite. "The Storm" provides a peek at the reason why Johnny's visions seem to be getting more purposeful and detailed as he uses them more, but I like the consipracy-theory grittiness of "The Hunt," an episode in which Johnny is recruited by the government to help track down a terrorist leader.
My expectation that each episode would be formulaic has been thoroughly busted, to my delight. Although the basic idea is firmly in place (Johnny touches someone, sees something, does something about it), the direction and unfolding of events have been kept fresh and entertaining. Johnny enters the mind of a comatose man at one point, uses his touch to help Stillson's opponent, sees the inner identity of a split-personality victim, experiences visions of the people who donated the blood he received after a traffic accident, gets trapped in a set of recurring visions until he works out the right solution to the problem, and so on. It may sound obvious to say that the situations are what make it fresh and interesting, but thinking about it at the beginning, I really didn't see much flexibility with Johnny's gift, and I am impressed by how little the episodes repeat themselves in the series. The temptation to reuse successful tricks must be strong.
One thing I like about this season is how the psychological aspect of Johnny's gift is fleshed out a bit. Here is a man who is tormented by the death and destruction he sees after even casual contact. The idea that it might be driving him mad or at the very least turning him into a hermit who is afraid to see people because they might touch him is explored quite thoroughly. This is territory that a lesser show would stay well away from because it is so easy to botch the effect or break the suspension of disbelief for viewers. However, here it is a valid story arc that is brought off beautifully due to solid writing, characterization, and acting.
The actors in the show deserve much of the praise. They all take their jobs seriously and put 100% effort into the acting. By all accounts, Anthony Michael Hall throws in an extra 10% or so, serving as coproducer and putting in extra hours for the special effect vision sequences. It's a good cast, with a lot of natural actors. I especially enjoy any story that has Bruce in it -- he has a seemingly effortless timing and can help to lighten tense situations. I really get the feeling that he is drawing Johnny out of his shell; as the episodes go on, Johnny jokes around a little more spontaneously.
Dead Zone has attracted several much-loved character actors, and even a couple of actors who have been away from the big screen or television for a while, as guest stars. It's always a treat to see people like Robert Culp, Ally Sheedy, Louis Gossett Jr., Robert Picardo (with Jane Lynch as a husband-wife comic relief duo), Stephen Tobolowsky, James Handy, Reiko Aylesworth, Gerald McRaney, Tracey Gold, and Scott William Winters, just to name a few.
The DVD release for Season Two sports a ton of extras, as well as all of the episodes in widescreen format, on five discs in a fold-out package. An episode guide and separate extras guide is also printed on the packaging. Each episode has at least one scene-specific commentary; some have two. Commentaries involve cast, guest stars, and crew, and are some of the best I have heard for a series. Often, one person will ask the other questions about specific scenes or direction choices, bringing out some of the behind-the-scenes info. Three featurettes about preproduction (in three parts!), production, and postproduction provide extensive behind-the-scenes goodies and fill in some of the blanks as to just how big a production Dead Zone is -- definitely a must-see for fans of the show and those who are curious about the special effects. Some of the episodes include deleted scenes or postwrap interviews with guest stars and crew, and these are some of the most interesting extras. Some of the scenes are alternate takes of scenes involving subplots that were abandoned but containing important dialogue that had to be reshot. In addition, there is a letter from the executive producers, who are obviously very fond of the show and want to see it make good. Finally, cast and crew bios round out the set. In other words, a boatload of extras really sells the "Complete Second Season" title.
Visual quality for the episode transfer is excellent, with clear widescreen images that have deep, rich color. Much of the typical color palette for this show is muted (grays and blacks), and there are a lot of nighttime scenes, which is always a challenge as far as image quality is concerned, but the crisp images do not disappoint. Sound quality is similarly sharp, with a robust soundtrack and full-bodied sound effects and ambient noise that do not overpower the dialogue track.
If I have any problem with the series at all, it's the whole idea of the love triangle between Walt, Sarah, and Johnny. At first, it seems unbelievably nice somehow, like everyone has accepted things and is okay with it. Would this happen in real life? I'm not sure. What I would have expected was for Walt to take a swing at Johnny at some point.
Thus, the dilemma. Nothing about this show is typical, or necessarily expected, so why should this love triangle be? Walt strikes me as the sort of stalwart hero who would rather die than admit his fear or anxiety, and that complicates things nicely. Johnny also realizes that Walt is good for Sarah, and he doesn't want to break up their family. That just leaves Sarah, who is slowly turning into the villain of the piece. As the sharp-witted Dana will observe in a later episode, Sarah wants to have things both ways. She can't stop loving either man, and neither of them deserves her divided attention. It's easy to see why she loves Walt. If it wasn't his rippling muscles or knight-in-shining-armor profile, it would be his devotion to her and her son, his gentle acceptance of her just as she is, and his utter dependability and the security he offers just with his presence. This is no brutish manly-man who has nothing to offer Sarah, and that makes the situation all the more complex.
In the end, it works for me, and I wouldn't expect two highly noble men to behave differently. However, I do hope something happens with Sarah before she loses the sympathy of the audience.
Wow, is there really any question as to the worth of this series? Dead Zone is an action series that has equal appeal to the critical thinker or the popcorn flick enthusiast. It's sort of like the short-lived Milennium, without the confusion. The DVD release is stuffed with extras, is presented in widescreen, and has extra episodes. Good stuff. Get it.
I'm in a room...with a lot of chairs...a man in a dark robe is wielding some sort of weapon...or maybe it's just a gavel...he's saying that Johnny Smith is cleared of all charges and free to go...and that Lions Gate is ordered to release Season Three really soon...so as not to keep those without cable in suspense...
Review content copyright © 2004 Sandra Dozier; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 822 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "Making of an Episode: Preproduction" Featurette
* "Making of an Episode: Production" Featurette
* "Making of an Episode: Postproduction" Featurette
* Audio Commentary/Commentaries for Each Episode
* Interviews with Guest Stars for Selected Episodes
* Interviews with Crew for Selected Episodes
* Storyboard Sequences for Selected Episodes
* Deleted Scenes for Selected Episodes
* Letter from Executive Producers
* Cast Bios
* Production Team Bios
* Official Site