Our reviews of The Dead Zone (published October 2nd, 2000), Dead Zone: The Complete First Season (published August 4th, 2003), The Dead Zone: The Complete Second Season (published July 19th, 2004), The Dead Zone: The Complete Third Season (published July 20th, 2005), The Dead Zone: The Complete Fourth Season (published July 12th, 2006), The Dead Zone: The Complete Fifth Season (published July 11th, 2007), and The Dead Zone: The Final Season (published June 18th, 2008) are also available.
You should see what I see.
The Dead Zone is an adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. This material has been adapted for the screen once before, in 1983 as a feature film starring Christopher Walken and Tom Skerritt. This time around the idea has been expanded into a TV series on USA Network and the SciFi Channel, starring former brat packer Anthony Michael Hall. The two-hour pilot movie makes its way to DVD via our friends at Lions Gate Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Johnny Smith (Hall—The Breakfast Club, Pirates of Silicon Valley) has the perfect life. He has two great loves in his life. He loves his job as a high school biology teacher, and he loves his fiancée Sarah Bracknell (Nicole de Boer—Star Trek: DS9, Cube), the music teacher from down the hall. Johnny and Sarah's life is destroyed when he has an auto accident and spends six years in a coma. When he awakens, the world around him has changed. Sarah is married to Sheriff Walt Bannerman (Chris Bruno—My Girlfriend's Boyfriend). It seems that Johnny and Sarah conceived a child just hours before Johnny's accident; Walt and Sarah are now raising young Johnny as their own.
When Johnny awakens, he learns that he suffered severe brain damage in the accident. His brain has had to learn new ways of processing information. As a result, he now uses a portion of his brain that is a "dead zone" in most people. His recovery is nothing short of a miracle, but there is a strange side effect. Whenever he comes into contact with another person or something they have touched recently, he experiences a strange, dreamlike state where he can see hidden details about their future or their past. He discovers this almost immediately upon regaining consciousness; a nurse touches him to give him a sponge bath, and he has a vision of her daughter trapped in a room filled with fire. The nurse calls a neighbor, and sure enough, the house is on fire. Through Johnny's vision a tragedy has been averted. As he slowly gains an understanding of his powers, he begins to learn to use this strange ability to prevent other tragedies. He soon becomes involved with an investigation into a serial killer who has been terrorizing local women; the hunt for the serial killer allows him to prove his abilities to the world, and forms the rest of this pilot episode.
The Dead Zone puts a Stephen King twist on an idea that we have seen before. Early Edition, Quantum Leap, and of course Minority Report have all taken in radically different directions the idea of fixing the future before it happens. I've enjoyed all of them, and The Dead Zone is no exception. The pilot episode/movie does an excellent job of establishing the characters and backstory, and creates a quietly understated atmosphere of creepiness.
One of the real joys of watching The Dead Zone was rediscovering Anthony Michael Hall. Hall (who apparently goes by Michael these days) has totally outgrown his cast-in-stone geek image from the beloved John Hughes films of my childhood. Not only that, but he's become a darn fine actor. I'll be honest—the most recent prior work of his that I had seen was Johnny Be Good. If it were not for the DVD case in my hands, I would never have known that Hall was playing Johnny Smith. He does an excellent job as Johnny. Hall captures the conflict in the character beautifully, and shows us both his pain and wonder as he is catapulted into various scenes from other people's lives. He plays well against de Boer, who has her character's own set of conflicting emotions to deal with, and Bruno, who forms the third leg of the triangle. I haven't seen any other episodes of the show, but I expect the tension among these three will provide lots of dramatic energy as Johnny continues to seek justice and prevent tragedy.
The audio and video portions of this DVD are a mixed bag. The preferred audio option will be the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix. The audio does a good job with the subtle sounds of Johnny's world, such as a group of kids skating and playing hockey on a frozen pond, seemingly all around the viewer. Dialogue is crisp and clean, and while it does sound a bit hollow or echo a little once in a while, this seems to be a an on-set problem rather than a problem with the DVD audio. The DVD handles the audio well, but frankly isn't called upon to do very much.
The video presentation is another can of worms entirely. It is amazingly grainy throughout, and the image is so soft at times it looks like there was Kleenex over the camera lens. Colors are solid and natural at all times, including the telltale reds and blacks. Flesh tones are warm and natural for the most part, although they do look a little overlit and washed out at times. Fine textures like hair pretty much suck. The funny thing is that as bad as a lot of this DVD looks, there are some scenes that are immaculate and beautiful, as lifelike as looking out a window. For example, there is a shot of a helicopter in Chapter 6 that is stunning. One wishes the same amount of care had been applied to the whole transfer.
At first glance it may look like this DVD carries a lot of extra content, but don't be fooled. Most of it is promotional fluff. There is a promotional featurette that runs for a minute and a half. There is a collection of USA Network promo spots for The Dead Zone. There is a collection of trailers for other Stephen King adaptations, including Rose Red, Storm of the Century, and this version of The Dead Zone. There is an interview with series creator Michael Piller about new twists to expect in the second season, which is full of vague hints but no real specific details. It was good of Piller to make the effort and share even this limited information with fans of the series, however, even if it is just a ploy to build anticipation for the season starting in January. One of the more promising aspects he reveals is the intent to build on overarching plot threads that will take many episodes or multiple seasons to resolve; this is always a good sign.
Among the more useful extra features is an alternate ending that focuses more heavily on action and features a shootout between Sheriff Bannerman and the serial killer. The alternate ending is introduced by series co-creator Shawn Piller, who explains that this ending was discarded in favor of one that was truer to Stephen King's novel and had more of a Silence of the Lambs feel to it. The other main special feature is a commentary track featuring Hall, de Boer, Bruno, Michael Piller, and director Robert Lieberman. The commentary starts out very slowly, with a lot of gaps. I was surprised that with that many participants they would have that little to say. After the first ten minutes or so I was worried that the whole commentary would be incredibly boring, but it does improve if you can stick with it for a while. After a while the gang gives some good explanations of how various effects were accomplished, how actors achieved the right emotional resonance for certain scenes, and the like. Especially interesting are the bits where they discuss changes that were made in characters and situations from the novel to make the dramatic tension work better for a television series. They also give some insight into the absurdity of working with a network, and the sort of idiotic demands that network suits will place on a production. After listening to the commentary it seems clear that we are all lucky that this series wound up on USA instead of UPN.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't find a lot to complain about in The Dead Zone, but it bears repeating that the image quality leaves a lot to be desired.
There are probably some who will complain that this sort of thing has already been done, and they may have a point. There were elements in the pilot that I felt were ripped just a little too closely from other sources, especially the climatic basement search for Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. Overall, though, for a television program on basic cable, this show is head and shoulders above most of its competition and will hopefully do well for many seasons to come.
As a final note, this DVD is rated R, "for a sexual reference." As you might expect, this is an example of the MPAA getting their undies in a twist over nothing. The reference in question comes as Johnny's physical therapist Bruce is helping get him up to speed on events from the preceding six years. He speaks of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky's activity in a way that the MPAA evidently doesn't appreciate, but which will probably not offend anyone else. If you, like many people, use the MPAA rating as a guideline in your viewing choices, please do not let the R rating keep you from renting or purchasing this DVD; this is an instance where the rating is completely bogus.
Not guilty! It's nice to see intelligent programming on television, programming that takes some risks and tries something new. Catch it while you can; given the record of the people running USA and SciFi, good shows tend not to get much respect and don't stay around long. (*cough* Farscape *cough*)
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Michael Piller, Anthony Michael Hall, Nicole de Boer, Chris Bruno, and Robert Lieberman
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