ABC’s latest science fiction drama, The Whispers, is loosely based on a short story by Ray Bradbury. But as our guest recapper — author Ellen Kushner (Swordspoint) — explains, this formulaic horror/procedural show misses what’s great about Bradbury’s original tale. Spoilers ahead...
I cannot believe I let Charlie Jane talk me into doing a Recap of a TV Pilot.
I can’t believe I said Yes to this one.
I am more or less a TV Series Virgin. I never watch any unless they have corsets, armor, tunics or vampires, and even then I’m pretty snooty about word choice.
So taking on the pilot of ABC’s new series The Whispers, inspired by (because no way is it actually based on) Ray Bradbury’s short 1951 story “Zero Hour,” was sheer folly on my part.
The ABC video clips alone were enough to make me want to pluck out my own eyes like Oedipus Reckless, stomp on them, and run screaming out, foretelling doom.
Which I guess, gentle reader, is where you come in.
The advance promo clips should have warned me; they pretty much said it all:
#1: “This isn’t Funny”
#2 “I’ll be right in”
#3: “What is that Thing?”
Nothing we haven’t heard before. Nothing to scare us but the dread familiarity of humorlessness, devotion to duty, and nameless horrors.
Yes, my friends, we are in Normal Land, a land where suburban moms with perfectly straightened hair helicopter over their darling only children (no messy siblings here) playing on the perfectly manicured lawns of somewhere that screams “California!” even though it’s not.
Why exactly should we worry when their poor kids find more interesting company? I applaud them! Even though the invisible parent-killing space alien known as “Drill” isn’t the alternative I would have chosen.
(Please admire the way I am not going on about how much better Bradbury’s story is, even though of course it is. I am trying to play fair here. “Zero Hour” captures 1951 ideal family life – set in an imaginary future – in much the same way The Whispers does that of 2015, complete with amiable, clueless moms. Except Bradbury’s story has humor, insight and energy, doing away with the need for commercials.)
So we open with a Cute Little Girl (CLG) talking to her Imaginary Friend, Drill, about an exciting new game. Out comes her skinny, well-dressed mom, her hair perfectly ironed.
This was when I knew I was in trouble. Perfectly flat straight hair is to me a living metaphor for women knuckling under to the mainstream demand that we spend time doing that to ourselves.
Ironed-Hair Mom (IHM) tells CLG to come inside the house and get out of her wet playclothes. They are so Normal! But once inside . . . the Music Starts.
And that is not a metaphor.
Here follow some of my Viewing Notes:
OH, NO! A DOOR IS OPENING . . . ALL BY ITSELF!
Of course, IHM did leave it open (after telling CLG “No running in the house!” – hey, examine the mote in your own eye, lady!) – but SINISTER MUSIC cues us into the fact that This Is No Merely Breeze-blown Door.
This is preceded by a thrilling moment where IHM has a hard time hearing her friend on her cell phone: “Just some interference!” she chirps. I’m sitting here wondering: Why are they giving up Valuable Air Time to something so commonplace – but then I realize . . . . IT’S THE ALIEN! ENTERING THE HOUSE AND INTERFERING WITH THE CELL PHONE RECEPTION!
Because cell phone interference never happens unless there’s an alien in the room. More proof that these writers do not live in the same world as we do.
Uh-oh! Wind chimes. ALSO MOVING ALL BY THEMSELVES!!! Because: SINISTER MUSIC… so we know it’s NOT THE ACTUAL WIND. I am so scared.
IHM moves through house. Now I’m scared. That house is so neat it’s frightening. Everything matches. And is painted in tasteful colors. The only mess is the stuff the kid’s just thrown on the floor in her haste to pack her pink knapsack with household implements of doom. It is an EVIL ALIEN mess.
Like the one in my study. Only not caused by me.
CLG is now up in really cool treehouse with irresistible rope ladder. “You know you’re not allowed up there without me!” shouts worried IHM over dire music.
Dear god. Someone please free this child. The whole point of a treehouse is No Grownups Allowed!
Up in Treehouse, CLG is being bratty. To make sure we know we’re in Sinister Kid Land, IHM looks scared instead of annoyed. Mom then does the Sinister Kid Movie equivalent of everyone splitting up to explore the house with the Chainsaw guy in it: she steps on the Mysterious Arcane Symbol on the treehouse floor, and . . . .
Oh, dear. Mommy’s hair not so perfect anymore.
Was that really just the opening 5 minutes that precedes the credits?
I fear it was. Onward!
Nice credits. Let’s be fair. Music doesn’t suck. Excellent use of crayons.
Oh, shit. Parents at a Little League game. More suburban fun. There’s a new mom, blonde this time, with baseball cap. Why do women wear those? They look like idiots. I know, it’s Normal. And they look like idiots.
There is something disconcerting about grown women and men getting all het up about kids playing a game. Deeply disturbing. But the music’s cheerful, so I guess we’re not supposed to be upset.
And this Mom is Lily Rabe, a stage actress I actually know and like. Lily, how could you? Well never mind, I know. Shakespeare doesn’t pay the rent. Lily, whose name is Claire, is so het up about the children’s game that she keeps screaming “Woo hoo!” into the phone over her boss’s call to insist she return to work because she’s had plenty of time to recover from (a mysterious) trauma. She “needs a case.” So she’s what? A lawyer? A social worker?
Nope. She’s –Oh, wait a sec. Her kid’s making a home run. Pause for more adults’ screams of encouragement.
Her kid is deaf. So what was she yelling, “Ruuuuuun, Henry!!” for?
OK, that was petty. But that was just a little too much jumping up and down for me, there. Can we stop establishing everyone’s normalcy and relatableness and get back to the story?
Have I mentioned that the notion of “relatable” characters makes me break out in hives?
She’s FBI. We’re in Bethesda, Maryland. Glad we got that straight. Wouldn’t want to think we were in California.
There’s a cute black guy assigned to the case: to figure out why CLG tried to kill IHM. Guy is unpleasant to Claire in front of their boss, who chastises him. Turns out they both had recent “disciplinary problems.” But Claire’s husband just died, so she wins.
Cut to two more moms on a park bench, watching kids. The Cheating Husband of one them (“But I still love him!”) is off in Africa.
We’re in Africa, too! Dusty vehicles. African guy in sunglasses and beret spits out the tip of his very big, fat cigar. Want to bet on whether he’s a lovable good guy? Because I’m not taking that bet.
Two U.S. government guys get out of dusty Vehicle. One is white, cute and authoritative. The other one is an anxious, OK-looking Asian with no lines. I wonder which one’s the Cheating Husband?
We’ll. . . . find . . . out. Someday. After we cut to:
Claire the FBI Child Specialist (the mom with the dead husband and the deaf kid) is interviewing CLG who Almost Killed IHM, while her Partner the Cute Black Guy looks on. He exists entirely to be unpleasant to her for no reason, so she can explain things to him. Also, HE HAS NO KIDS. So how can he possibly understand anything? In this world, that’s not Normal. Also, he has no hair.
It’s all about the hair.
Cause there’s a Bum Guy who appeared earlier, brooding across the street from IHM. He is cute, but he has a beard and his hair is longish and stringy-ish. This hair is not relatable. (Well, sadly, it is – but they don’t really care about Our Kind, do they?)
Let’s leave hair alone for a moment, and return to Lines We Have Heard Before:
In Africa, it is suddenly dark, and everyone has to go Suit Up to See Something. Music ominous. Asian guy utters the memorable line: “What. . . is. . . that thing?”
May I be put in a skillet and basted with olive oil and lemon if I ever utter those words about anything but a piece of crud stuck between my wife’s teeth. Or a new kitchen implement. She likes those. When confronted with some Alien Horror, I hope I can come up with something better.
OK, being unfair again. They are looking at giant blue and silver glowing papier mache tree originally drawn by a 5-year old. “What is that thing?” is indeed the only appropriate response.
Get closer to tree. It’s actually crashed metal space doohickey wreckage. Do you think Drill the Space Alien had something to do with it? Does the Pope wear a yarmulke?
Back in Baltimore, a quick discussion of the marital problems of the FBI partners draw them suddenly and inexplicably together. At a psychiatric hospital they visit another mom, the victim of her son’s shenanigans with Drill the Space Alien. Boy, howdy, is her hair a mess!! But blonde, so we know she was once pretty. Carefully-applied mascara. God, can’t she at least finger-comb? Normal women have weird priorities.
Latina doctor looking after bum guy in the hospital. She’s cool. Other members of hospital staff fill out quota for one walk-on of each race & ethnicity known to California.
Drill the Space Alien has been gossiping to the kid about her Cheating Dad’s affair, which upsets her “I still love him” mom. Interesting congruence of Domestic Drama and SF horror.
Kid – who bears the wonderful name of Minx (in Bradbury, it was “Mink”)– first brings up the concept of “turning” – i.e. to grow up and no longer be able to play with Drill.
The point in Ray Bradbury’s story is that children’s reckless desires and energy can be used against them. We all were born with it, and we’ll all lose it. These kids are just TV kids. We were never them. And all they reflect of us is our anxiety for a consensus “normality” that is as loathsome as it is generic.
At the beginning, CLG says she is playing a game with Drill. There is a reason for her to want to “win” by making Mommy fall out of the treehouse. Minx has no such excuse. In the one cool visual segment of the show, where all the lights in her room – an electric toy, the fairy lights wrapped around her bed’s headboard, and finally each nightlight along the corridor in turn – turn on to wake her and lead her down the hall, Minx is annoyed to be woken, but goes on resignedly anyway to hack Cheatin’ Daddy’s computer. ‘Cause why? What’s Drill done for her lately?
Are we there yet?
And at the end, all the seemingly-unconnected things come together in a satisfying way that someone who is less of a TV Series Virgin than I could probably have seen coming a mile off. But it was tidy. I admire that in a script, if not in real life.
ELLEN KUSHNER is the author of the Riverside series, Thomas the Rhymer and other works of interstitial fantasy lit. She is currently overseeing the creation of the new 13-episode novella series “Ellen Kushner’s Tremontaine,” a prequel to her cult novel Swordspoint, through the online venture Serial Box Publishing.