The question of whether a child’s imaginary friend might actually be real, and evil, is a trope common to many horror movies from ‘The Shining’ to ‘Hide and Seek’ to ‘Drop Dead Fred’ (the latter a particularly terrifying story of emotional abuse). Now ABC’s new drama thriller series ‘The Whispers’ puts a sci-fi twist on the premise. Could the show be the most promising genre programming for the summer, or is it just this year’s ‘Under the Dome’?
I draw the comparison to ‘Under the Dome’ not just for the sci-fi angle, but because creator Soo Hugh was a producer on that dopey CBS show during its first season. Learning that bit of trivia filled me with some initial dread. Fortunately, while there’s still plenty of room for ‘The Whispers’ to go very wrong, the pilot episode at least leaves me optimistic for its potential.
Lily Rabe from ‘American Horror Story’ stars as Claire Bennigan, an FBI agent who’s been on a leave of absence for the past three months since her husband died. In the meantime, she’s devoted herself to being an overprotective mom to her deaf son Henry. However, Claire (an expert in child psychology) is called back to duty after a little girl named Harper very nearly killed her mother by setting a trap that caused the woman to fall out of a tree house. Because the girl’s father happens to be an important nuclear scientist, the case requires extra scrutiny and sensitivity.
As Claire questions the girl, little Harper claims that she was playing a game and following the instructions of her invisible friend named “Drill.” Claire immediately recognizes a similarity to a previous case involving a boy who set off a homemade bomb, and suspects that this Drill isn’t entirely imaginary. She believes that someone is behind it and is manipulating young children through the power of suggestion. Her new partner thinks she’s crazy.
Meanwhile, other children, all with important parents, begin talking to the same invisible friend. Sometimes he communicates through electricity, and other times in the bright daylight. One little girl tells her mommy that old people can’t hear him because they think too much.
A scruffy hobo (Milo Ventimiglia) is seen spying on children in a park. He later winds up in a hospital, muttering something in Arabic. When he snaps out of his trance, he claims that he doesn’t speak any languages other than English, and that he has amnesia and can’t remember his name. He’s designated “John Doe” for now. At the hospital to visit her mother, Harper wanders off and enters John Doe’s room. She tells him she can help him find his friend.
A guy named Wes Lawrence, ambiguously identified as being with the “Special Projects” branch of the Defense Department, flies to the desert in West Africa, where the local military brings him to a fighter jet that supposedly disappeared in the Arctic. Not only would the jet not have had enough range to fly all the way to Africa, it appears to be trapped in a mysterious rock structure that appeared from out of nowhere. The rocks have an electrical charge. His techie people call it petrified lightning, but it’s much larger than any known example of the phenomenon. When he reports this back to his superiors, the Secretary of Defense immediately orders him to come home. “There’s something you need to know.”
Wes phones Claire. We learn that they had a secret affair while they were both married to other people. He tells her about the plane, and that her husband was the pilot. Because there’s no body in the wreckage, her husband’s status has been upgraded to Missing. Just then, Claire receives a police artist’s sketch of the hobo John Doe, and of course it’s her husband.
At Wes’ house, his daughter Minx (really?) is instructed by her imaginary friend how to hack into her daddy’s computer. Claire’s son Henry is also talking to Drill, who has cured his deafness but told him to keep it a secret.
All of our initial clues suggest that aliens are behind the voices and they’re using children as the first stage in an invasion plan. Not to get too spoilery, but the series is (loosely) based on Ray Bradbury short story called ‘Zero Hour’ which is about precisely that.
Some of the child acting is a little dodgy, as is some of the adult acting. Rabe is fine, but Ventimiglia gives off more of a pedophile vibe than a “mysterious stranger who knows about aliens” vibe. I don’t buy him as either a badass Air Force pilot or Rabe’s husband. The guy playing Wes wears a douchey scarf that undercuts a lot of his credibility. The mom who fell out of the tree is played by Autumn Reeser, whom I’ve found annoying in just about everything I’ve seen her.
Nevertheless, I’m intrigued enough to watch the show again. Much of the success of the pilot episode is due to its very atmospheric and creepy direction by Mark Romanek (‘One Hour Photo‘, ‘Never Let Me Go‘). We’ll have to see how future entries fare without his direct involvement.