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'Dead Zone' new take on Stephen King's novel

Sunday, June 16, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

"The Dead Zone" is not a place, per se. It's not like the neutral zone from "Star Trek" or the phantom zone from the Superman movies and comic books.

Fans of the Stephen King novel and 1983 Christopher Walken film know "The Dead Zone" is a spot in the brain of most humans that's not used. But after an accident almost kills Johnny Smith, the dead zone in his head becomes active, giving him the ability to see into the future or past of the people he touches.

TV Review
"The Dead Zone"
When: 10 tonight on USA.
Starring: Anthony Michael Hall, Nicole deBoer, David Ogden Stiers.

USA Network's latest take on "The Dead Zone" (King has no involvement in the show) stars Anthony Michael Hall as Smith, a high school teacher with everything going for him. His long-time friend Sarah Bracknell (Nicole deBoer) has become his fiancee, and they're planning a long and happy life together. In TV, of course, that means tragedy is just around the bend.

After his accident, Smith goes into a coma for six years. When he awakens, he discovers a new power and, perhaps worse, learns Sarah is married to Sheriff Walt Bannerman of Cleaves Mills, Maine, played by Chris Bruno.

Tonight's pilot sets up the story with heartfelt moments of wistful longing and some intriguing special effects. When Smith gets visions of someone's past or future, "The Dead Zone" shows him in those moments, which become a still frame. Rain drops are halted in their descent, people are frozen in their tracks as the camera zooms between them. It's a simple but effective visual element that becomes the show's signature.

While the premiere sets up "The Dead Zone" to be the story of a guy who wants his girl back and will do good deeds while he pines from afar, the second episode offers reassurance that the series won't be so pat.

Smith works with the sheriff to uncover a serial killer, and the togetherness doesn't sit well with either of them. Undaunted, Sarah wants Smith to be part of their lives, particularly because the child she and Bannerman are raising is actually the product of her previous relationship with Johnny.

A lunch scene featuring all three points of the love triangle is amusing, while Smith's vision of the sheriff dying and how that would benefit him is unnerving.

Humor is woven throughout "The Dead Zone," particularly in scenes between Smith and his physical therapist, Bruce Lewis (John L. Adams), who helps update him on what happened during his long sleep.

"You missed O.J. [Simpson], too, huh?" Bruce says.

"Let me guess, ambassador to the U.N.?" Smith replies.

"Not exactly," Bruce says.

The first two episodes of "The Dead Zone" show promise, though there are some cheats here and there (no one in the cast speaks with a New England accent).

Originally announced as a midseason series for UPN (a joke about Regis Philbin being the "biggest star of prime time" shows how long ago the pilot was filmed), "The Dead Zone" got caught in a management transition and found a new home on USA.

Executive producer Michael Piller (a veteran of three "Star Trek" series: "Next Generation," "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager") said the only change from the UPN pilot and what airs tonight on USA is the recasting of Rev. Purdy (David Ogden Stiers replaces Michael Moriarty), the man Smith's mother loved prior to her death.

Piller said in making the series, he and his son, executive producer Shawn Piller, went back to the book, although they made some changes, notably the father of Sarah's son.

"We made that change to force Johnny and Sarah to be in proximity over the long haul," Piller said in a recent phone interview. "I think Stephen King's goal was to separate them after the accident, but we wanted to keep them close to keep the simmering romantic tension. In the book she sleeps with Johnny, and we'll play with that for a while. We may get there."

Piller said he chose to revive "The Dead Zone" because he was intrigued by the story.

"The book is very clearly a Christ metaphor," Piller said. "Johnny Smith's story is that of a man chosen by fate and/or by God to save mankind and sacrifice himself. The idea of doing a television show about a contemporary Christ figure allows us to explore the world we live in through a spiritual perspective, to ask ourselves what we would do if we were thrown into a circumstance of fate asking us to give up everything we own in order to love and serve mankind, and how the world would treat us. It's an irresistible premise for a television series."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

Sunday, June 16, 2002

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