Television and Radio: Creep Show Revisited

TNT's Nightmares & Dreamscapes revives a shaky television genre

Jul 12, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Erik Heinla

William Hurt is a hitman in "Battleground," the first installment in TNT's four-week miniseries Nightmares & Dreamscapes.

S omewhere along the way into the new millennium, cable television woke up in a nightmare realm. Censors at the major networks lurked along the shadowy periphery ready to cast an uncertain moral light when the broadcast world sunk too far into darkness. But the boundary was constantly shifting and the dreamscapes were becoming more alluring to audiences because ratings were gaining strength.

And why not, with premises like The 4400, USA Network's science fiction miniseries-turned-regular weekly series built around the notion that thousands of people who had mysteriously vanished returned with unusual abilities. They had to be re-integrated into a society that feared them but was secretly envious and more than willing to exploit them.

Beyond the compelling sociopolitical commentary that could be presented, the series fit the television format by offering a diverse group of core characters along with "thousands" of other subplots to boost the proceedings when new chills and thrills were needed.

If the whole enterprise has a familiar ring, the tone is most definitely based on the living master of the macabre, Stephen King, whose novel and film adaptation The Dead Zone has been serialized by none other than USA Network. Unfortunately, both The 4400 and The Dead Zone suffer from the same disorder that afflicts King's epic balloon rides like The Stand and It, books that have been given the television miniseries treatment as well. The hot air eventually dissipates and the balloon comes crashing down, sometimes quite spectacularly.

The Dead Zone television series features a charismatic turn from Anthony Michael Hall in the lead but strips edgy layers from his character, Johnny Smith.

In the novel and in David Cronenberg's feature film, Smith's lack of understanding of the limits of his own abilities and his more selfish desires made him an unstable and threatening protagonist. As the seasons add up, this human dimension has almost completely disappeared, leaving Hall with little more than his own considerable charms to instill in the routine psychic dramas of each episode.

The episodic television format limits The 4400 in much the same way. Yet redemption of the genre is at hand. TNT presents Nightmares & Dreamscapes, a four-week miniseries. The much-hyped "event" features eight hour-long telemovies based on stories from King's 1993 collection. By focusing on his short stories, TNT draws a bead on what makes King and his creepy fixations so fascinating.

The tightly focused "Battleground" showcases a dialogue-free performance from William Hurt as a professional hitman who murders the CEO of a toy manufacturer and who must defend himself from a deadly counterattack led by a miniature assault force seeking retribution. In "The Road Virus Heads North" and "Umney's Last Case," King explores the secret lives of writers with Tom Berenger and William H. Macy respectively taking turns as authors in crises. There is even a healthy dose of gallows humor in "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band" thanks to the smirky performance of Steven Weber as a husband who takes his wife (Kim Delaney) down the wrong path in search of a little Rock & Roll adventure.

Stylistically, the eight stories touch on several common themes in King's oeuvre, such as the aforementioned writer's dilemma, his great affinity for Classic Rock and the hard case with a heart ("The Fifth Quarter" featuring Jeremy Sisto and Samantha Mathis).

But, surprisingly, it is the weakest installment ("The End of the Whole Mess") that provides the most compelling argument for sticking to the short anthology format. "Mess" posits a scenario where documentarian Howie Fornoy (Ron Livingston) must record for posterity the story of how his genius younger brother created a serum intended to save the world from its destructive tendencies.

The story shares DNA traces with The Stand, King's end of the world epic that collapsed under its own mythic buildup. Here, the end is served up neatly in that the viewer sees the impact of the experiment on one man and his family. The larger implications are left to the imagination.

Nightmares & Dreamscapes works well because it remembers that the creepiest bedtime stories require only one sitting to tell the tale.

nightmares and dreamscapes on TNT features back-to-back episodes every Wednesday at 9 p.m. through Aug. 2.