Lionsgate // 2005 // 504 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // July 12th, 2006
"You'd better be right, Johnny, or it's going to come back to haunt
you." -- Walt
"It's already haunting me, That's why we have to end it." -- Johnny Smith
If you've read the Stephen King novel, seen the Christopher Walken movie, or watched the TV version of The Dead Zone, you know that Johnny Smith awoke from a coma with visions. Aside from excuses for neat special effects and clever surreal scenes, those visions give Johnny glimpses into the future and insights into people's pasts. Just listen to the narration at the beginning of each episode ("One touch and I can see things. Things that happened, things that will happen. You should see what I see.") to learn all you need to know, except in the obligatory mythology episodes.
The former schoolteacher lives in Cleaves Mills, Maine, a town not unlike your own -- if you happen to be Jessica Fletcher, since a mystery turns up on Johnny's doorstep every week. (If you're from Vancouver, Canada, the town will look a lot like your own because it's actually filmed there.) He gets by with a little help from his friends: best bud Bruce, a physical therapist who's always up for an investigation; ex-fiancee Sarah, who stayed at his side through six years in a coma; local sheriff Walt (Sarah's husband), who uses police resources to help Johnny's investigations, and the Rev. Gene Purdy, a powerful evangelist with a dual nature.
What's new here? Despite a grim vision that ended the third season, Johnny's burdens have eased a bit as the murder mystery that loomed over the third season is resolved. He finds time for romance with a female psychic and probes his own relationship with his father in this fourth season.
There's a lot of catching up to do at the start of The Dead Zone: The Complete Fourth Season -- and a lengthy "previously on" segment, since we're starting off with mythology. When we finally get started and catch up with Johnny Smith (Anthony Michael Hall, Sixteen Candles), he's about to undergo brain surgery. That's the least of his worries, though, since there's a U.S. marshal trying to serve a warrant on him and Rebecca's trying to get close to Rep. Greg Stillson (Sean Patrick Flannery, Young Indiana Jones) to get revenge for her sister's death. Meanwhile, the Rev. Gene Purdy (David Ogden Stiers, M.A.S.H.) has traded his collar for an orange prison jumpsuit. He sits in a cell praying and his pleas are answered, but by a future source of bedevilment rather than by God.
The Dead Zone: The Complete Fourth Season contains 12 episodes, including the infamous "A Very Dead Zone Christmas":
* "Broken Circle" -- Johnny and Bruce head for Washington, D.C., in a race to prevent Rebecca from killing Stillson.
* "The Collector" -- Sarah's providing job-hunting help at a community center, but when a woman doesn't show up for class, it's Johnny's help that's needed.
* "Double Vision" -- Johnny's seeing into the mind of a would-be assassin, but who is Alex Sinclair (Jennifer Finnegan, Close to Home), the attractive woman who keeps appearing in his visions?
* "Still Life" -- The movie Laura gets an homage when Johnny finds a painting by a famous artist on his doorstep, then finds himself obsessively sketching a missing woman. If Johnny doesn't solve this one, he may never go back to drawing stick figures. Stick figures? Is Johnny practicing for Saint-hood?
* "Heroes & Demons" -- A young autistic boy seeks out "a grand wizard" (Johnny, actually) to help him clear his policeman father on a murder charge. If you're a fan of product placement, watch for M&Ms in a bit part.
* "The Last Goodbye" -- Sarah and Johnny go on a roadtrip to find a missing rock star when touching the man's guitar reveals that he's still alive. Along the way, they solve a long-dormant murder case and prevent a suicide.
* "Grains of Sand" -- Johnny and Bruce rescue a baby from a van stuck in a raging river. When Johnny flashes forward through the baby's entire troubled future, he decides to find the baby's illegal immigrant father instead of turning the baby over to Walt.
* "Vanguard" -- It may be Johnny's birthday, but it's not a happy one when he sees visions of Armaggeddon connected to one of the guests at his party, a research scientist (Danny Masterson, That '70s Show) working on a form of artificial skin.
* "Babble On" -- The dust stirred up by a home renovation project stirs up "a hailstorm of psychic energy," as Bruce puts it, and visions of Johnny's father. What do they have to do with Dixieland jazz and a building collapse?
* "Coming Home" -- Sarah (Nicole De Boer, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and Johnny visit her father in the retirement home, where the patients speak of a "Shadow Man" roaming the corridors at night. Throw in some strange visions of deaths and you've got a puzzle for Johnny and Bruce. Ed Asner (Lou Grant has a good turn as Sarah's grumpy dad.
* "Saved" -- "Fasten your seatbelt. I think Hell's about to freeze over," Johnny tells Bruce when he foresees Stillson coming to him for help. Sure enough, Johnny helps locate Stillson's missing fiancee, but that only puts her in more danger. This one is the actual cliffhanger, with the season's final segment breaking the continuity.
* "A Very Dead Zone Christmas" -- Johnny may be a psychic, but he didn't foresee Bruce's reaction to a holiday turducken or a surprise visit from Alex. Or did he? Yeah, it's the weakest story of the season, but it has a few laughs at least.
For the Charge in this review, I picked a line of dialogue that could fit into all of these episodes, since the TV version of The Dead Zone adheres to a simple plot outline: Johnny has a vision but can't figure out what it means, he's compelled to investigate to help out a friend or someone he meets, and he ends up in a race against time to save the day. If there's a fiery explosion, all the better; I counted four episodes that wrapped up with a blast, not counting scenes of Johnny's vision of apocalypse.
Like many a modern TV show, The Dead Zone makes its standard-issue plots a secondary aspect. What it's about, actually, is Johnny Smith's growth as he copes with his psychic gift and becomes more involved with people as a result. The people he meets aren't vehicles for getting Johnny into the plots; instead the plots are vehicles for letting Johnny (and us) into the characters' lives.
The best episode here, "Heroes & Demons," does more than that by allowing Johnny to see the jumbled images in the mind of an autistic boy. The way Johnny sees things in a rush of images gives him an advantage in connecting with the troubled youngster, especially since the boy has collected an assortment of objects to tell his story when he cannot do it through words. One scene in this episode has fun with another form of communication, as Johnny follows a trail of Post-it Notes to make lunch, giving another clue to how people communicate -- or fail to -- in the modern age. Since it's a non-verbal dialogue between two people who have unusual thought patterns in different ways, it shows off the series' visual storytelling style excellently as it provides a few clues about autism. Elsewhere in this set, character moments in "Double Vision," "Babble On," and "Coming Home" make those episodes stand out.
In Season Four, Anthony Michael Hall lightens up his brooding portrayal of Johnny Smith a bit, as the symbolic disposal of his cane (a source of apocalyptic visions) demonstrates. This might not be true to Stephen King's tragic novel, but it does give the show more possibilities for the long run, a concern that, judging from the commentary, seems to have been in the thoughts of the production team and USA network. I particularly enjoyed seeing him react to another psychic in "Double Vision."
With the lighter tone, you'll get a few visions of 1970s detective shows from the banter between Johnny and pal Bruce, not to mention their penchant for Rockford Files-style B-and-E while snooping around at crime scenes. Bruce (John L. Adams, Just Deal) doesn't get enough dramatic moments in this season, but Adams shows some comic flair with a few Felix Ungar touches that give the duo a retro chemistry right out of Simon and Simon.
Will Walt (Chris Bruno, The World's Fastest Indian) morph completely into Dennis Becker, the slightly cranky cop pal of Jim Rockford's who always comes through? Stay tuned. Considering all the ways his life is intertwined with Johnny's (his wife was Johnny's fiancee and Johnny turns out to have been the father of his son, conceived just before Johnny went into the coma), you'd expect a little more insight into how he deals with Johnny's intimate knowledge of Sarah, both past (Walt didn't know about her teenage punk hairdo until Johnny told him) and present (Walt didn't know that Sarah felt "neglected" until Johnny told him).
The show still has a couple of rogue elements in the Rev. Gene Purdy and Rep. Greg Stillson. David Ogden Stiers makes Purdy perhaps even more complex than troubled Johnny, since his fatherly concern for Johnny shows through even when he knows his actions aren't good for Johnny -- or himself. While in earlier seasons, Stillson was portrayed as pure evil, the episodes that bookend Season Four begin to let us into the inner workings of his mind. The fate of the souls of these two characters appears to be the biggest mystery to explore in upcoming seasons. With luck, the mythology will focus on developing these characters and their relationship to Johnny rather than grand conspiracies, since Sean Patrick Flannery seems ready to match Stiers's performance if the scripts allow.
The widescreen picture here is clear and crisp, as you'd expect in a recent show made as the TV industry gets ready to go digital. You won't have problems with the sound, either.
The commentary on "Broken Circle" suffers from having too many voices -- with four people giving their input about the changes in direction that the episode represents. The information's interesting, but it might have been better if each person had taken a different episode to comment about. The commentary on "Saved" suffers from the same problems. Since the show has an excellent Web presence at USA Network's site, splitting up duties and giving each participant a chance to do one good solo commentary would have helped them match that site's efforts.
Deleted scenes show major changes in "Broken Circle," made at USA Network's request. While I preferred the final version, fans will be curious to see how this episode -- and the season -- could have turned out. Another notable set of deleted scenes includes an alternate version of "Heroes & Demons" without product placement.
"The Production Design of The Dead Zone" looks into a couple of large scenes, most notably the complicated river rescue in the opening to "Grains of Sand." Extras also include a tribute to the late Michael Piller, who co-created the series with his son Shawn, that features a brief interview with the late writer on the development of The Dead Zone.
I'll have to admit that, since I'm no Johnny Smith, it took me a few tries to figure out how to navigate the episode selection menu. Only the first two episodes on each disc are immediately visible, so when you move the pointer down to "main menu," you have to hit the right arrow on your DVD player remote.
Oddly (since it's based on a work by horrormeister Stephen King), The Dead Zone has become a nice little comfort food TV show, albeit the only one in which the hero has regular visions of Armaggedon. A strong, likeable cast means it's always watchable, even when the mythology gets muddled or the series overdoses on Christmas spirit. It would be nice if they got the kind of larger episode order that would encourage the writers to do more with the supporting characters.
The Dead Zone is the only TV series that I've started watching because I read it first. I'm not talking about the Stephen King novel, although I did read it after seeing a few episodes, but about the complete set of scripts posted at USA Network's Web site. It's a neat way to catch up if you miss a mythology episode.
I find The Dead Zone not guilty, though I'll leave it up to you to decide whether you're enough of a fan to plunk down for a season set. He may have been acquitted, but shake hands with Johnny Smith at your own risk.
Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; 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: 504 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio commentaries for "Broken Circle" and "Saved"
* "The Production Design of The Dead Zone featurette"
* A Tribute to Michael Piller
* Deleted Scenes
* USA Network Site for The Dead Zone