"Night Stalker" is in the dark at capturing original's creepy-cagey balance
Prime-time television may be one way that modern mankind copes with primordial dread. TV's flickering screen wards off the shadows, tangible...
Seattle Times TV critic
Prime-time television may be one way that modern mankind copes with primordial dread. TV's flickering screen wards off the shadows, tangible and otherwise, that descend each autumn.
As no less an authority than "Night Stalker" hero Carl Kolchak notes, "Our fear of the dark never really goes away. We just pretend it's not there."
The return of "Night Stalker" this evening at 9 on ABC also reminds us that the networks have put a lot of energy into crystallizing our worst terrors this fall, and that the line between therapeutic and exploitative entertainment is easily crossed.
The new one-hour drama, starring Stuart Townsend as Kolchak, is a sort of shadow itself — a lurid, one-dimensional descendant of the 1974-75 series that became a cult classic and Chris Carter's inspiration for "The X-Files."
The original program began as a 1972 movie that was the highest-rated of that season. Another movie (set in Seattle) followed, and then in 1974, "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" was born.
Why it didn't last is a mystery. Darren McGavin reprised his film role as the reporter-cum-paranormal-investigator. McGavin, who was Mike Hammer in a 1956 TV series and the fuming dad in another cult hit, "A Christmas Story," lent just the right mix of gravitas and wise-cracking slyness. A reviewer aptly dubbed the show, " 'Columbo' meets 'The Twilight Zone.' "
None of that balance is evident in tonight's production. Much of "Night Stalker's" energy is concentrated on freaking us out with physical effects: bludgeoning music, badly photographed scare sequences and graphic depictions of mayhem that outdo time-slot rival "CSI."
But such efforts can't distract us from the series' frequent lapses in logic and the shortcomings of Townsend as Kolchak.
As in the old version, Kolchak is a journalist. We learn this after the opening murder scene, when crime reporter Perri Reed (Gabrielle Union) shows up to interview police and finds Kolchak already on the case.
Newsrooms certainly can be bad at employee relations. Still, it's a big stretch to suggest an editor would hire someone to cover a beat without making an announcement or telling the person already doing it — especially when the new guy is an ongoing suspect in his wife's murder.
"Night Stalker's" Lois-and-Clark rivalry is intended to vary the show's mood. It's futile because no mood ever is established. Townsend fails to convey either the intensity of a haunted man seeking his spouse's killer or the craftiness of a cynical reporter; he merely looks smirky.
Union, meanwhile, founders in a badly underwritten part. Poor Perri is defined by Kolchak's ability to outdo her reporting, and it's a blatantly rigged contest.
When she's trying to compose a murder story and Kolchak triumphantly enters with new information, we're supposed to infer Perri was too dumb or naive to interview people at the morgue — that it took a man with his superior insight to accomplish a Journalism 101 task.
Similar implausibilities permeate the rest of the plot. One killing is followed by another attack, and among the occurrences we have to swallow is that a child wouldn't let out a yip while watching her mother be stalked in the family shower by a "thing."
Audiences also must accept that police working a months-old murder case hadn't tried forensics to determine whether a human, animal or "thing" conducted the assault, and that Perri would park her car in the farthest reaches of the lot while a serial killer was on the loose.
The slayings reveal a distinct lack of creativity. To reel us in, "Night Stalker" borrows elements of the Scott Peterson case, which almost was enough to make this viewer kill the set.
In a universe deliciously populated with phenomena of the kind captured by Loren Coleman in his classic work "Mysterious America," Jerry Coleman's "Strange Highways" and John Keel's "The Mothman Prophecies," it's amazing that Hollywood relies so often on the same headlines.
The pilot episode of "Night Stalker" concludes on a suitably improbable note.
When Perri asks Kolchak why he doesn't write about his findings, he insists "The public doesn't want to know" and says he'll report when the time is right. By then, the blogs will be all over it.
Kay McFadden: email@example.com
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