Monday, December 11, 2006

The Dead Zone - Season 4

The Dead Zone is one of those shows that exists under the radar - it's hardly ever talked about, yet seems to have enough of an audience (a niche audience, perhaps?) to survive for five seasons and counting. Perhaps part of the reason is that it isn't flashy or edgy and features a near middle-aged cast. I've heard the term 'comfort TV' used to describe it, and it's somewhat apt; you typically know what you're going to get because the episodes have a consistent structure. However, The Dead Zone isn't nearly that run of the mill, and it does feature darker elements and a compelling story arc that plays a major part in many episodes.

A quick recap - it's based on a Stephen King novel, and is about a man named Johnny Smith who recovers from a coma with psychic powers. In the tradition of similar television heroes like Kwai Chang Caine and Michael Knight, Johnny typically comes across people who need help and... endeavors to help them. His powers allow him to see the future or the past in 'visions' (within which he either acts as an invisible observer or takes the place of one of the participants). In season four Johnny helps solve an old murder, prevents several others, tracks down a serial killer and a rock star, and helps save a bunch of illegal immigrants, among others. He's usually aided by his buddy Bruce, Sheriff Walt Bannerman, and the Sheriff's wife Sarah. There's also the recurring story arc in which Johnny must stop a Congressman, Greg Stillson, from causing a future apocalypse.

It sounds kind of lame on paper, but it works well. The tone is always earnest, but not overly so - the characters bring an element of humour and levity to most situations. The stories, while never blowing you away, never insult your intelligence either, and are consistently well written - having only 12 episodes for the season means there's no cheap 'filler' material. The Stillson arc continues to develop in interesting ways, although I felt it took too much of a back seat this season. The strongest element of the show is the cast, who now seem to have that sense of camaraderie that you often see in TV shows when they've been running for a while. Anthony Michael Hall and recurring guest star Sean Patrick Flannery (who plays Stillson) are the standouts. The one major downside this season was the absence of character growth, which featured strongly in previous seasons. The only characterization of substance was Stillson, and that was only in a handful of episodes.

Minor caveats aside, I enjoyed season four and look forward to season five on DVD. It's well made and consistently entertaining, and while it doesn't have much storytelling ambition it does what it sets out to do very well. One other annoyance that comes to mind though - the horrible new theme music. What was wrong with the old theme?

As a brief aside, The Dead Zone was an interesting counterpoint to Tru Calling (which I'm watching right now), a similarly themed show that has a different tone and a more frenetic pace to go with its much younger cast.

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