In Review: The Whispers, Episode 1 “X Marks the Spot”

The first installment is slow and predictable, but the child actors make much of it believable.

The Whispers, Episode 1 “X Marks the Spot” Broadcast June 1, 2015

Teleplay by Soo Hugh

Directed by Mark Romanek and Brad Turner

The Weil residence, Bethesda, Maryland. Children are playing in a sprinkler and squirting each other with super soakers. Little Harper Weil isn’t playing with her friends. She’s facing a bush, talking to it. She says mom won’t let her do “it” anymore, but daddy would, though he’s always gone because he’s an important scientist. Her mother calls her to change and eat, but she says she can’t. “I’m still learning all the rules.” Her mom wants to know who her –invisible– friend is, which makes Harper smile. “Drill.” “Would he like to join us for lunch?” her mother offers. “He says that would be admenable to him,” the little girl responds. In the house, Harper goes upstairs to change while her mother takes a phone call. The door slowly opens from the breeze outside to reveal the other children still playing in the front, while across the street, standing on the sidewalk, disheveled Drew watches intensely. Upstairs, Harper continues to speak with Drill, getting her backpack and filling it with tools, such as a saw and wrench. Her conversation concluded, the mother goes to find her daughter who’s not answering her calls to lunch. She finds the girl’s room a mess, Harper gone, and the window open. In the backyard, Harper’s in a really high treehouse which frightens her mother. “Come down now,” she orders. “No,” the girl answers, “you need to come up. The game isn’t over yet.” Her mother nervously ascends and enters, with Harper upset she’s not standing on the X she’s drawn on the floor. She’s supposed to stand on it so Harper wins the game. Her mother complies and falls through the weakened floorboards. Harper proclaims happily, “I did it! I did it!” It’s only after Drill doesn’t speak to her does she realize something is wrong. “Mommy? Mommy. Can’t you wake up now? The game is over.” A pool of blood escapes the back of her mother’s head. Cue opening title sequence.

At her son’s baseball game, Agent Claire Bennigan answers her phone. It’s her boss telling her that they’ve received a case of a six year old that tried to kill her mother, with all the signs pointing to it be premeditated. Since the girl’s father heads up the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they’re involved. She questions why she’s been called. “It’s been three months. I thought the case would do you good.” Her son gets batted in and she goes to down to him and signs that she has to go to work. Henry signs back that it’s fine, and she responds that his grandmother will pick him up. At the FBI field office in Baltimore, Maryland, her boss introduces her to Agent Jessup Rollins and she begins to go over the Weil file. They have to move quickly to interview Harper because the father will probably stop their questioning. Claire leaves while Jessup is pulled back by their boss who tells him to take it easy on her since she lost her husband recently. Elsewhere, at a park, Minx Lawrence demonstrates a gymnastic move to her mother Lena before running off to play. The girl’s mother is talking with another parent and it’s revealed that Minx’s father works for the defense department and had an affair; her parents are still trying to work through her father’s indiscretion. Lena admits that it still causes her pain, but she loves her husband. In the Sahara Desert of Western Africa a dirty pickup and an equally filthy SUV head into a mobile camp where an African general awaits them. Wes Lawrence, father of Minx, emerges from the SUV with his assistant Peter Kim to meet with the general. He has something to show them in his tent. Back in America, Claire wants Harper to tell her about the game. “I’m not supposed to say.” She does tell the agent about Drill who “speaks through the lights sometimes.” Harper says Drill is gone, looking for a new friend. “The game isn’t over yet.” At the playground, Minx stares into space saying, “Yeah, I can hear you. Yeah, I’d like to play.” She smiles and the first commercial break begins.

This felt really drawn out and moved at an incredibly slow speed, as though every part of the original story, “Zero Hour” by Ray Bradbury, was being milked out. If viewers have ever watched The Twilight Zone or read a fantasy or science fiction story or novel from the 1940s or 50s, this will seem really familiar. The premise of children communicating with things adults can’t is an old trope and the creators of this series do what they can to liven it up. The addition of a mystery character, named Drew (played by HeroesMilo Ventimiglia), is nice way to get away from the children for a while, but his true identity is revealed before the episode ends, killing some of his mystery. The discovery in the Sahara tries to create an X-Files/Lost (I spit at the mention of that last show) vibe, but comes off really forced to having something strongly science fiction interjected. It was nice for what it ties into, but came off as hokey. Abby Ryder Fortson is magnificent as Harper Weil. Everything that comes out of her mouth is believable, and the scene between Harper and Claire is fantastic. Kylie Rogers is okay as Minx, but because her character is older than Harper she doesn’t come off as true; though her scenes within the playground equipment were fantastic–Those were creepy moments. Kyle Harrison Breitkopf comes off well with a chilling coda for the episode, with how long he can keep “that” hidden being key. Lily Rabe gets the most scenes as Claire Benningan and she does well except when her backstory is revealed, which comes off as the writer screaming “This is her backstory.” It could have been handled much more subtly and over more than one episode. Barry Sloane, as Wes, doesn’t get much to do except look astounded at what he sees. Kristen Connolly (Lena Lawrence) gets some good moments with Kylie and a great final scene with a surprise listener. Milo Ventimiglia gets the juiciest role and plays Drew as nicely confused. I’m interested in his story and what his visuals have to do with the children.

The good: Abby Ryder Fortson and Milo Ventimiglia’s acting, Alan Ruck and Dee Wallace making appearances (I love them both!), and the direction by Mark Romanek and Brad Turner which made all the kids seem creepy.

Fun lines: “I don’t know but he couldn’t win the game,” “It’s happening again,” “What is that thing?”, “It’s too late. They’re searching for the lights,” “My name? I don’t know,” “But you know where he is, don’t you?”, and “I can’t believe it. This is the best present in the whole wide world.”

The bad: Having all of Claire’s backstory told in five minutes, the horrible music by Robert Duncan, the slow pace of an overly familiar horror trope, and the dated feel. Perhaps setting this story when Bradbury had it first published or filming it in black and white would have made it better.

The final line: A classic Bradbury short story is spread over ten episodes. The first installment is slow and predictable, but the child actors make much of it believable. I’m good for one more episode, but if the pace doesn’t pick up, I’m out. Overall grade: C+ 

Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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