White-knuckle TV

Ghosts, aliens, terrorists, criminals, sea monsters and female presidents are appearing this fall to exploit our deepest, darkest phobias. Is this the entertainment we want -- or deserve?

Published September 12, 2005 1:11PM (EDT)

"A feeble mind, conscious of its own feebleness, grows feeble under that very consciousness. As soon as the power of fear becomes known to it, there follows the fear of fear, and, on the first perturbation, reason abandons it." -- Hector Berlioz

"He who strikes terror into others is himself in continual fear." -- Claudian

"There's nothing I'm afraid of like scared people." -- Robert Frost

Just as we're starting to get a handle on the terrifying specter of Hurricane Katrina, the creepiest, most fear-mongering season of TV ever is delivered straight to our living rooms. While it's obvious that Americans are now officially scared out of their minds like never before, why would we want to indulge our horrors on the small screen?

Hollywood dug up a handful of old phobias this summer with "War of the Worlds," "Batman Begins" and "Red Eye," and now TV producers offer us a bunch of shows that occupy that addictive territory between suspense thriller and horror flick. Whether it's the trickle-down effect of terror-alert levels, nuclear proliferation, and the wars abroad, or the success of shows like "24" and "Lost" that are to blame, never before have the networks served up so many dramas about frightening forces beyond our control. From terrorism ("E-Ring," "Sleeper Cell") to unearthly mysteries ("Supernatural," "The Night Stalker," "The Ghost Whisperer") to extraterrestrial visitors ("Invasion," "Threshold") to sea monsters ("Surface") to escaping prisoners ("Prison Break") to perhaps the scariest of all, the prospect of a female president ("Commander in Chief"), the current lineup manipulates our fears to a degree once reserved for blockbusters. Even the new procedural dramas, the latter-day "CSIs," are wandering into extremely dark territory with the specter of abusive fathers, serial killers, rapists armed with tarantulas, and murderous Capitol Hill insiders ("Close to Home," "Killer Instinct," "Bones," "Criminal Minds"). More than anything, the fall shows paint a picture of a world that's slipping out of our control. Around every turn are malevolent forces that seek to destroy us, forces that exist outside the scope of the civilized world or current science or human understanding (for a handy chart guide, click here.)

The monsters and ghosts and aliens that are suddenly intruding are obvious metaphors for terrorism and its uncanny ability to incite chaos and threaten the status quo. But what does an influx of such scare tactics say about the state of American culture? Are we merely seeing the migration of the dark thrills of the multiplex to the small screen, or does the apocalyptic mood on-screen mirror a feeling that we're losing our footing, given the tumultuous state of global affairs?

This fall's suspense dramas not only put a fresh face on terror, but they often suggest that the main thing we have to fear is fear itself. Of course, that makes sense, since the protagonists in question are up against forces far more daunting than those heretofore found on the boob tube (unless you count the last few weeks, of course) -- more daunting, it's suggested, than any normal human can or should be able to bear. Although our hero-experts (every drama has at least one of them) are courageous, idealistic, hardworking and alarmingly well-informed, if a little bit emotionally distant, the challenges they face, day in and day out, threaten to A) topple their faith in the system or the natural world, B) overwhelm them with fears and anxieties of the unknown, C) cause them to work long nights without sleep, D) challenge the strength of their marriages and/or E) cost them their sanity. In other words, this isn't just the latest gaggle of Sam Waterstons (who, for all his angst, always shows up to work on time); these are tragic heroes who, we suspect, will encounter more than a predictable set of wobbly obstacles en route to solving the season-long mystery at the center of the show.

In fact, if the dark tone and horror-movie antics are any indication, not only won't each show's central mystery get solved, but things might not work out so well for our hero-expert in the end. Remember, producers are taking their cues from "Lost" and "24" -- you know, the shows that ended last season, respectively, when the little boy was kidnapped by pirates, and our hero, Jack Bauer, was doomed to wander the earth as a wanted man. Apparently a new taste for the deeply disturbing and a new tolerance for unresolved action inhabits the modern suspense drama, and the tone of many of these pilots suggests that they're headed down the same haunted path.

Oddly enough, though, the dramas that focus on ghosts and things that go bump in the night are, by far, the worst of the lot. While the WB's "Supernatural" (premieres Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 9 p.m.) starts with a terrifying "Exorcist"-style bang and a pair of dreamy boy heroes (Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki) sure to draw in fans of shallow teen horror flicks, the ultimate premise -- something along the lines of "Hey bro, let's drift around the country hunting ghosts and looking for our lost daddy!" -- doesn't seem too promising, nor does the cool-guy dialogue. Still, as flat and robotic as the show may be, a teen "X-Files" meets "Red Eye" is likely to pull in high ratings.

CBS's "Ghost Whisperer" (Fridays at 8 p.m.) has the dubious distinction of starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, armed with dialogue and scenarios so neutered it immediately calls to mind "Touched By an Angel." Our heroine isn't really an expert, she just sees dead people (everywhere). In fact, we get the feeling that she just wants to get on with her day, which mostly seems to entail making kissy-poo with her brand new husband and trying on various outfits that accentuate her, um, assets. Not only is this one of the more melodramatic, sappy, empty pilots on the slate, but the ghosts she encounters are hopelessly sweet and sentimental. It's enough to make you run, screaming, back to "Supernatural's" terrified boy-toys. And how are we supposed to focus on the plot when Jennifer Love's Hewitts are busting out of her wedding dress? How can we possibly fear the teary-eyed ghost soldier when there's just a thin nightie between us and Jennifer Love's (sleeping) Hewitts? You might as well throw a little yellow puppet singing show tunes into every scene.

ABC's "The Night Stalker" (no premiere date yet) aims for creepier supernatural elements, but the story is weak and, based on their performances, the cast knows it. Our tale begins as a straightforward procedural drama featuring your standard hero-expert (in this case, a journalist) with a tragic past, then shifts halfway through to reveal that the criminal he's hunting is not a man, but some kind of a beast that's "not of this world" (see also "sort of like a cougar, but worse"). The twist isn't all that scary, and basically falls flat, maybe because the cougar-beast seems to kill only women, preferably when they're alone at home or naked in the shower. For all the predictable suspense-building manipulations, "The Night Stalker" will leave you with a funny taste in your mouth, as if you stayed up too late watching a "Baywatch Nights" marathon.

Not surprisingly, NBC's "Surface" (Monday, Sept. 19, at 8 p.m.), a drama about the appearance of massive sea monsters off the Gulf Coast, doesn't exactly capture the modern imagination quite the way ghosts, aliens or terrorists might. The writers do the best they can cooking up spooky "Jaws"-like scenarios, from kids in wobbly row boats blinking out at dark waters to hero-experts diving deep below the sea for a claustrophobic close-up with some massive, wriggling Loch Ness-style bad boys. But when your best scene involves an aquarium shattering while a high-maintenance suburban mom screams neurotically about the mess, you know you're in deeper than a primordial ocean beast.

The two shows that tackle terrorism directly are also two of the better dramas in the lineup: Showtime's "Sleeper Cell" (which, unfortunately, doesn't premiere until December) and NBC's "E-Ring" (premieres Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 9 p.m.). Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and starring Benjamin Bratt and Dennis Hopper, "E-Ring" explores the inner workings of the Pentagon, echoing the military suspense thrillers of the late '80s and early '90s, like "Top Gun" or "The Hunt for Red October." Bratt is perfect as our fearless and charming hero-expert, the sort that speaks up when the high rollers of the military would have him shut up. Hopper is also great as his boss, a guy who, although he's more entrenched in the culture, still plays loud rock music in his office. You get the picture -- these guys are the rock stars of the Pentagon, and they're going to kick ass and take names for the sake of the red, white and blue. Yeehaw! [Cue anthem rock.] We don't really learn anything new about the military or its operations, of course, but with the slick scenes and snappy one-liners coming in rapid succession, who really cares?

Where "E-Ring" speeds along, flashing a rapid succession of shiny, easy-to-digest (if not easy to believe) scenes in our faces, "Sleeper Cell" explores a more personal, messier, and more devastating universe, featuring the experiences of an undercover FBI agent attempting to infiltrate the ranks of a truly frightening group of domestic terrorists hell-bent on killing in the name of jihad. Michael Ealy is transfixing in his turn as Darwyn, a young black Muslim whose dedication to the cause of preventing another 9/11 has essentially taken over his entire life. While Bratt and Hopper discuss military operations thousands of miles away, the stakes couldn't be higher for Darwyn, who puts his neck on the line for the sake of his cause. It's tough to tell how nuanced any of the characters in "Sleeper Cell" will be, based on the pilot, but the inner struggle Darwyn must endure to maintain his cover is riveting enough to hold our attention indefinitely. Add to that the intensity of the material, including one brutal scene in which the leader of the cell suspects that one of the members is a traitor, and you've got a drama that's well worth waiting for.

The upcoming slew of procedural dramas features criminals so demonic that our public servants are forced to work overtime, studying bones and fingerprints while strummy alternative rock plays in the background. If only we didn't have to return to the same old "Silence of the Lambs" plot over and over again. Whether it's the tarantula-wielding creep or the serial kidnapper fond of small cages, the crazies never seem to come in more than a few flavors these days. Of the current lot, Fox's "Bones" (premieres Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 8 p.m.), although slightly heavy on the dippy montages, is the most original and odd, while CBS's "Close to Home" (Tuesdays at 10 p.m.) is distractingly melodramatic, CBS's "Criminal Minds," although capably written, feels like a retread from start to finish, and Fox's "Killer Instinct" is clumsy, poorly written and mired in cliché.

When it comes to criminals, Fox's "Prison Break" (Mondays at 9 p.m.) presents a much more entertaining and unusual scenario than the procedural dramas with their endlessly rotating haunted cops and bad guys. Sure, all the scary criminals are locked up in jail, but our hero-expert Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller, who also plays a dead soldier in the "Ghost Whisperer" pilot) plans to change all of that. Scofield purposefully commits a crime so he'll end up in prison with his brother, who's sentenced to die in a few months for a crime he didn't commit. While brother Lincoln (Dominic Purcell) doesn't seem to have many redeeming qualities aside from his square jaw and frank demeanor, our hero has a degree in structural engineering and has just had the blueprints to the prison tattooed on his body -- you know, artistically, so no one can tell what they are, and so he'll still look hot. Miller does look mighty hot, and he has an almost uncanny knack for making his eyes fill with tears on command. This comes in handy when you're playing a sensitive idealist who's about to commit a major crime to save his brother's hide. But the best thing about "Prison Break" is that we've never seen anything like it before. Sure, the sadistic and quirky criminals are more than a little familiar, but the plot is completely new.

The alien-invasion dramas are the least familiar of the lot, and therefore have the easiest time catching us off-guard. That said, ABC's "Invasion" (premieres Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 10 p.m.), while certain to conjure up nightmares from Katrina with the hurricane scenes of the first episode, features vaguely uninteresting characters, flat scenarios and a less-than-intriguing alien/swamp thing. CBS's "Threshold" (premieres Friday, Sept. 16, at 9 p.m.), on the other hand, may be the most riveting and the most haunting drama to air this fall.

In "Threshold," the always-good Carla Gugino plays Molly Anne Caffrey, our resident plucky hero-expert who's called in to handle worst-case scenarios for the government. Along with a gaggle of like-minded hero-experts, she's rushed off to investigate the appearance of an extraterrestrial craft in the mid-Atlantic. At first, the alien angle and the occurrences on the ship, along with the arguments between the hero-experts involved, all seem to fall along predictable, slightly hokey lines. And then, well, I'm not going to spoil this for you, but suffice it to say that things get very, very eerie, far more eerie than you imagined was possible on a TV drama. Some will call this one CBS's answer to "Lost," and maybe that's the case, but to "Threshold's" credit, I learned more about what Gugino and the others were up against in the first episode than I did during the entire first season of "Lost." Granted, "Threshold" isn't likely to delve as deeply into each character's history and psyche. But then again, based on the last few minutes of the pilot, it looks like anything is possible. At the very least, this one should scare the bejesus out of you. What more could you ask for?

Which leads us to the question of why we want such scary stuff on our TV sets in the first place. Are we addicted to fear, or do we live in so much fear of another big tragedy like 9/11 (or now, Hurricane Katrina) that, instead of holding our breaths and waiting for the next blow, we'd rather preoccupy our minds with running through some potential catastrophes, ranging from the alarming to the appalling?

Whether we're giving in to our phobias or cathartically expunging them, American pop culture seems to either turn its back on the facts completely, parading oblivious young things with handbag dogs in our faces, or it dives straight into the abyss with chilling depictions of one worst-case scenario after another. During the mid '70s to early '80s we were offered a similar confusing soup of escapism and fear-mongering, with shows like "Dallas," "Dynasty" and "Fantasy Island" providing shiny, vacuous diversion while disaster movies like "Airport '77," "Earthquake" and "The Towering Inferno" indulged our fears. Of course, the '70s-era disaster movie was recently just a running punch line, conjuring chuckles over how such films obviously pimped the country's fears about Vietnam, inflation, the Iran hostage crisis and the Cold War. Although it's easy to look back 10 or 20 years and see most of mainstream culture as vaguely quaint or foolish, those leg warmers and shoulder pads and goofy horror movies embodying a desperate, slightly manic attempt to counteract the uncontrollable or harrowing truths of the era, here we are, breaking into a similar cultural cold sweat with a fresh onslaught of aliens and monsters and demons. And today, instead of having some square-jawed, stoic heroes like Charlton Heston and Steve McQueen, all we've got are a charismatic gaggle of fallible hero-experts, some light alterna-rock, and more than a few melodramatic monologues attempting to assure us that justice will prevail in the end.

But will justice prevail in the end? The horror of the last few weeks has left us with our doubts, and aptly enough, this is the question that echoes through the new TV season. For some of the bolder dramas on the schedule, the answer is a big, open-ended "maybe." At the very least, we'll have to wait until May sweeps to find out.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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