Review Scorecard: The Whispers Pilot 'X Marks the Spot'

Tuesday, 02 June 2015 - 9:50AM
The Whispers
Tuesday, 02 June 2015 - 9:50AM
Review Scorecard: The Whispers Pilot 'X Marks the Spot'
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Ray Bradbury's "Zero Hour," on which ABC's new show "The Whispers" is based, is a beautifully subtle, creepy sci-fi fable that paints adults as fallen and unimaginative and children as the "innocent and heartless" monsters in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. The television show might get a chance to explore these themes, or it might not, but the pilot at least established it as an entertaining summer show that's well worth a watch. Here's how the first episode, "X Marks the Spot" fared on our scorecard:

Welcome to our scorecard, where we (semi-arbitrarily) assign points to the parts of an episode that we loved and hated, the parts that worked and the parts that definitely didn't. We'll weigh more significant aspects of the show with more points, either positive or negative, and tally all the points up at the end for a final score that will reflect the quality of the overall episode.

The Good

The premise +10 points
Much of the premise's success is owed to the wonderful Ray Bradbury story, "Zero Hour," but the execution was handled well enough that I'm hooked. The "what if your imaginary friend was real" angle is intriguing, and I don't even have children, but the idea that a child could be manipulated by a malevolent force to perform evil acts is a primal fear with lots of potential for scares.

Lily Rabe/Claire Bennigan +10 points
We need more complex female protagonists on television, and although she's no Carrie Mathison, Claire is easily the most complex character on the show. She's flawed without being antiheroic, accepts those flaws without flaunting them, and is firm and "tough" without pandering to the "strong female character" trope too much.

The opening sequence +10 points
Chilling. Like the short story on which the show is based, the first five minutes are filled with atmospheric dread and a simultaneous celebration and perversion of childhood innocence.

Autumn Reeser's "Not cool, Harper." +1 point
Made me hope against all hope that the character is an uptight, suburban, neurotic version of Amy Poehler's "I'm not a regular mom, I'm a cool mom."

The opening credits +5 points

An eerie lullaby that lulls you into a false sense of security. It might be overdone to use evil/possessed children as a scare tactic, or to increase the creepiness by not showing their faces, but it works.

The children +5 points

Are both precious and, as the adult stars have stated in interviews, consummate professionals. Young actors can be painfully wooden, but these kids all seem to be immensely talented, especially Abby Ryder Fortson, who plays Harper Weil.

Bennigan's boss +2 points

I didn't catch his name, but I immediately loved him for calling out Rollins's unprofessionalism. Some of the exposition in this confrontation scene was a little clunky, especially when he slipped in Rollins's disciplinary actions, but I'll forgive it because it developed his character in a very appealing way.

The drawings +2 points
It might be an overused trope in both sci-fi and melodrama to gain clues from kids' drawings, but whatever, I like it.

Claire's speech about grief +5 points
She said that grief is like a suitcase that sits at the bottom of your bed. And without fail, you have to pick it up, every day, take it with you. Some days it will be filled with rocks and you won't be able to carry it. And then other days- light as a feather. That, she said, is getting through it."

The idea of baggage obviously isn't a new one, but I liked the simplicity and earnestness of Claire's metaphor about "getting through" grief. Because she makes a good point: when you're embroiled in grief over a person who will never return, what does "getting through it" mean? Forgetting about them? Pretending it doesn't matter? By making it clear that "getting through" still means carrying it with you every day, she gives a grieving mother permission to continue to miss her son for the rest of her life, even if she ultimately learns to function without him.

Melinda Page Hamilton's casting as the grieving mother +1 point
Because the characters were meant to be parallel in a sense, and I've always thought she and Lily Rabe looked alike.

The concept of "turning" +3 points
When Minx explained that children "turn" when they "think too much about things," it gave me hope that the show could explore some of the loftier themes of its source material. Is it possible to think too much? Are children morally superior to adults because they run on emotion rather than logic? Or are they actually better thinkers, because they're more open-minded and imaginative? I'll be curious to see whether the show bothers to take a stance on these questions, or whether it will just be part of the "rules" necessary for worldbuilding.

"Daddy doesn't like us" +2 points
This line, in addition to the frank, "Daddy doesn't want to talk to you," is clearly meant for exposition about the family dynamic, but it also captures the uncomplicated, truthful way children think and speak.

"I'll need to meet this friend." "You will, I promise." +2 points


Drill talking to Minx through an alien light-up toy +1 point
I only gave it one point because it bordered on too cheesy, but was ultimately just cheesy enough to work. Children's toys are scary, there's just no getting around it. It reminded me of when my Furbie came to life in my closet in the middle of the night all by itself and scared the living daylights out of me.

+59 points

The Bad

Milo Ventimiglia's introduction -5 points
The opening scene was so effective partially because it was technically left ambiguous whether Harper's friend was imaginary. Although we all know Drill is real, it was more visually interesting and scarier to just imply that there was some kind of external malevolent force. The shot in which the shrubbery sways in the wind where Harper was talking to Drill was particularly hair-raising, and it was nearly ruined by the presence of an actual mysterious man.

Even as a huge fan of the actor, I found it difficult to care about any of his scenes. I'm mildly interested because he clearly plays a larger role in the mystery, but why would I care about an amnesiac character when I don't know who he is either? And does he really need to have tattoos? Is this going to be a Memento rip-off now?

The exposition -10 points
All pilots are saddled with the difficult job of telling the audience the background, and some of it was perfectly adequate. But other scenes were painfully clumsy; the entire scene between Lena and her friend was not only hamfisted, but rendered completely unnecessary by other scenes that let the audience know that Wes had had an affair and caused strife in their marriage. 

Rollins -2 points
Hated him from the first obnoxious "your reputation precedes you." His character seems to be all-business, but then he inexplicably cares about his partner's personal life, which has absolutely nothing to do with her professionalism. He's presumptuous, rude, and a borderline slut-shamer. Not on board.

"Domination" -1 point
Cheesy. So cheesy. I liked the conceit of Drill using words that are too complex for a six-year-old to use, and it worked well with "amenable," but the word "domination" was a terrible, B-movie choice.

The melodramatic "dun dun dun" music -1 point
The show was at its cheesiest during Wes's scenes, when the sci-fi elements were really introduced and the score worked overtime to convince us that THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT.

Hazmat suits and mysterious electricity -5 points
Some have compared the show to Lost, but the writers weren't canny enough to wait as long as Lost did to throw the viewers into the sci-fi aspect. It was jarring to go from the grounded scenes with Claire and the children to scenes with electricity stored in rocks and planes that crash but don't touch the ground, or something.

Speaking in tongues -2 points
Milo Ventimiglia speaking in a language that he "doesn't speak": another lame sci-fi/fantasy cliche.

Of course Claire's husband is alive -10 points
There's a character that is assumed dead, so of course he's actually alive and will return to wreak some havoc on Claire's life. It's a sci-fi show, so no one's dies until you shoot them in the head, check their pulse, and double-tap just to make sure.

Drill cures deafness -5 points
I was on the fence about this one, because it is intriguing, and is slightly reminiscent of Lost's infamous "Walkabout." But ultimately, it was just a little too much, especially for the pilot episode. Plus, it seems incredibly disrespectful to the deaf community to not only give up the chance for representation, but also take for granted that the boy is "fixed" because his hearing is restored.

-41 points

Final Score: +18

The pilot got a fairly positive score, and that's from someone who generally doesn't like pilots. The Whispers has a few flaws, but has more than enough intrigue and potential to justify watching a few more episodes. Maybe it will be a legitimately good show, maybe it will be a guilty pleasure, but either way it looks like fun.

Science Fiction
Sci-Fi TV Shows
The Whispers