Sunday, October 9, 2005

Dead Zone: Season 4 In Review

Or: "We're On A Road To Nowhere"

All in all, it's been a pretty disappointing season for "Dead Zone".

I've been watching the show since the pilot, so I'm not under the illusion that the previous seasons were flawless, not by any stretch. Basically, the main problem with "Dead Zone" is it has never had a proportionate ratio of important episodes vs. filler. You'd have these crucial storylines sandwiched between consecutive strings of stock plots - in which Johnny has a vision, gets involved with a bunch of people we know we'll never see again, saves them with some motivational speaking, and the day is won when Walt and the police ride in to arrest the bad guys. Wash, rinse and repeat.

As patterns go, it's not an entirely bad one - sure, most of the victims du jour have very little effect on Johnny and his life. But every now and then the writers manage to pull together a pretty compelling mystery with some genuinely sympathetic characters.

I say "every now and then" with the implication that, as far as Season 4 is concerned, it's really just "then". Because, for every episode that worked out this season, five didn't.

Let's take a look at the overall story for this season. Apparently, the remit was to drop the focus on the Stillson plotline altogether. Which, okay, I suppose is a justifable request: it had been slowly simmering, either at the forefront or in the background, for two seasons straight. And since the show has deviated so much from the plot of Stephen King's novel, it's not impossible to think that maybe, everyone wanted to try something a little different.

However, it's considered tradition - or at least good form - to close up old storylines before you start new ones. Which is probably what the season premiere (part 2 of season 3's finale) was supposed to do. A reminder: we'd left Season 3 with psychic Johnny encountering, through future psychic Christopher Wey, the post-apocalypse version of himself, who urged him not to stop Rebecca Caldwell (Johnny's girlfriend) from assassinating Greg Stillson (the politician who would, on his ascendancy to the White House, plunge the world into nuclear war). This, despite the fact that Rebecca will die in the process, and she and Johnny are lovers.

Okay. So, clearly, the best and most dramatic way to end the Stillson story would be for Johnny to accept the sacrifice necessary to save the world, and let both Stillson and Rebecca die. The future is averted, and a new one - completely unknown both to us and to Johnny - is created. Which gives the writers enormous leeway to pretty much do whatever they want.

Instead, what we get is at once tediously formulaic and shockingly silly: Johnny saves Rebecca (and, by extension, Stillson) despite the warnings of his future self. And at the end of the episode, Rebecca, Christopher Wey and Future Johnny are all written out of the show anyway. We're obviously not supposed to think Rebecca will be coming back, since a new love interest is brought in two episodes later... more on that in a bit.

So the fourth season pretty much gets tangled in its own net: on the one hand, the Stillson story still isn't finished, but on the other hand, with most of the major players summarily taken out of the picture, it can't really go anywhere either. And that's exactly what happens - for the next nine episodes (out of ten remaining), Stillson just isn't a factor. Sure, there's that episode with Danny Masterson, but let's face it, they could have done that with your stereotypical hard-ass military general and it would've turned out exactly the same.

And when it finally goes back to Stillson? The story still goes nowhere. There's a brief moment where it looks like Johnny may have finally averted Armageddon... and then, of course, it all goes back to status quo, AKA "exactly where we were at the end of last season", with Stillson gaining power while Johnny sulks. Hence, going nowhere and not particularly quickly either.

Let's talk characters. Because it's often been the case where you don't necessarily need plot movement to make a show interesting - exhibit A, "Lost". So this season might have been redeemed through character arcs... except there weren't any.

I'm not kidding. Not a single pre-established character actually developed in these eleven episodes. Nobody grows. Nobody changes. In fact, complexities the characters used to display are seriously downplayed: there's nothing between Sarah and Johnny, J.J. is practically non-existent so we don't see anything more of Johnny trying to be a father, and Walt is turned into a one-note cop who performs the same function episode after episode: he tells Johnny he can't investigate a vision without evidence, then he rides in with the cavalry. Bruce is Bruce, but there was never much else to him anyway. And Purdy... well, I haven't quite figured out why he's still on this show, since he's probably the character that does the least out of the entire cast. He preaches. And preaches. And preaches some more. Oh, and his golddigging skills would send Anna Nicole Smith into epileptic shock. In related news, Dana Bright is still MIA. Nobody seems to care.

And new characters? Well, there are a bunch, but only two seem to be given any real importance. The first is Malcolm Janus, introduced in the season premiere. Basically, it's an X-Files pastiche where the shadowy man with the mysterious-yet-foreboding signet ring lurks around making cryptic threats and knowing things he can't possibly know. Naturally, he's part of a group of people we don't know and don't see. Plus, he's a Bible-thumper who spouts scripture like he's proselytizing to the audience. They overshot "enigmatic" by about half a mile and ended up with "annoying". In fact, the fourth season ends with a message from Janus to Johnny where Janus asks him to make a choice. About...? He forgot to mention that part.

The other character is Alex Sinclair, a female psychic introduced in the third episode as a new potential love interest for Johnny. It's interesting that, while Johnny has met other psychics in previous seasons, they were never really fleshed out as characters: Bonnie from Season 3 came closest, but even then there was never any real interplay between the characters. Alex, on the other hand, seems to be a perfect match for the show: she's got her own "secret origin" story which left her with empathic powers, which she can use to see the future (though in a more intuitive, less visual way than Johnny). But what really shines with this character is her motivation: ever since childhood she's had visions of her own death, and she's determined to do as much good as she can before that happens. There's a wonderful twist to her vision (remember, Johnny can't see everything either), but the point is that she has something Johnny never had: a reason. Johnny's a very passive character: trouble finds him and he works it out largely because he's got nothing better to do. Alex is altruistic, and that makes her instantly likeable.

So, of course, it makes perfect sense that at episode's end, with all this chemistry built up between her and Johnny, she gets in a car and drives away, never to resurface. Well, duh. God forbid they shake up the cast list a bit.

Again, it's not like previous seasons featured consistent development, but at least there was some forward motion. Bruce lost the dreadlocks. JJ found out Johnny was his biological father. Johnny gave up Sarah at last and actually gained a friendship with Walt. Purdy got stuck in Stillson's web and got busted for it. Season 4, by contrast, is an exercise in futility, a placeholder that doesn't even put up the pretense of doing something important. There are moments where you think to yourself: "This will matter. This is HUGE!" For example, in the penultimate episode, "Babble On", Johnny not only discovers that he was having visions as a child (something we already knew courtesy of flashbacks), but he learns that his father could see the future too. That's a major revelation. It should make Johnny question everything he knows about his powers. Instead, it's dropped and never mentioned again. By the time the next episode starts, it's like nothing happened.

That kind of self-nullification, combined with a general sense that the writers were just spinning their wheels waiting for Godot, made the fourth season of "Dead Zone" the dullest one yet. Here's hoping the fifth picks up a bit.