When we were kids, we all played superheroes in the backyard. No matter what powers we decided to give ourselves, they were the coolest things ever and they were only gateways to more action and excitement. Oh, we were innocent and stupid.
The new thinking has gone a different way. Perhaps “With great power comes great responsibility” started the trend, but with each year, it’s become more and more evident that being able to do anything outside-of-the-norm isn’t cool at all. It’s actually an oppressive imposition, an inconvenience that doesn’t just keep you from living a regular life, it prevents you from having any sort of fun at all, from having any sense of humor. It turns out that being special really sucks and the Hollywood dreamweavers have put great effort into sucking all of the “super” from “superpowers.”
The latest and perhaps least-entertaining iteration on this theme is “The Listener,” a Canadian production getting summer primetime real estate courtesy of NBC and premiering on Thursday, June 4.
[Review after the break…]
Craig Olejnik plays Toby Logan, a 25-year-old paramedic. Toby’s a pretty morose pill, but he has a very good excuse: He’s telepathic. Everywhere he goes, he can hear what other people are thinking. In fact, he can also tap into their memories, if they happen to be thinking in shimmery, fuzzy detail about a specific memory. Because Olejnik has no chemistry with any of his co-stars, Toby doesn’t seem to have friends, but he has supporting players in his life, including his wacky paramedic partner Oz (Ennis Esmer), his ex-girlfriend Dr. Olivia Fawcett (Mylène Dinh-Robic) and Detective Charlie Marks (Lisa Marcos).
“The secret isn’t hearing people’s thoughts. The secret is making it stop,” Toby announces expositionally at the show’s beginning. We knew this already, though, because Matt Parkman on “Heroes” and Sookie on “True Blood” are currently going through the exact same aural cacophony with much the same discomfort.
At least Toby has learned what all people with special powers eventually learn on TV shows: If you’re stuck with it, the least you can do is fight a little crime. So in the first episode, he’s helping a woman deal with the abduction of her son. In the second episode sent to critics (episode five I believe) he’s assisting a teen struggling to escape a life of crime. It’s generic stuff, though the case in the second episode is far better due to guest work from “United States of Tara” co-star Keir Gilchrist.
“The Listener” isn’t fully off-brand for NBC, which has had variable success with this sort of reluctant hero drama. “Chuck” has done a tremendous job, for example, with having its main character hate his new aptitude, while still getting a childlike kick out of the fruits of his gifts. “Heroes” had nearly a full season where the characters occasionally did awesome things with their powers, before the producers decided a Greek Tragedy approach was more appropriate (critics and viewers disagreed).
It’s telling that it took Toby 25 years to realize he ought to be solving crimes, because he’s mostly a passive and miserable character. He gets intellectual or spiritual advice from mentor Dr. Ray Mercer (obligatory Canadian guest star Colm Feore), but otherwise he’s keeping his aptitude a secret, though his tendency to repeat people’s thoughts back to them should have either tipped his friends and loved ones off or annoyed the blazes out of them long ago.
It’s possible that Toby is so miserable because he’s confused by what he’s hearing. I can only speak for my own personal thought process, but my internal monologue is almost never in the sort of absurdly declarative sentences Toby keeps getting. “Heroes” and “True Blood” have similar problems, where characters keep thinking things like, “Gee, I hope he can’t tell I’m lying” or “There’s no way I’m letting this guy into my house with the dead body because I think he may be a cop,” but the writing in “The Listener” just happens to be worse. I can’t tell if they’re confusing “reading thoughts” with “reading minds” or “just being psychic.” Even worse is that just as the supporting actors on FOX’s “Lie to Me” have generally been misdirected to play their lies to the hilt, the performers in “The Listener” keep playing their thoughts. Toby doesn’t look so clever when the Evil Kidnapper is walking around sneering at everybody. I don’t need to read thoughts to read a curled upper lip or a malevolently twirled mustache (metaphorically).
With its greenish color palette and low-budget soft-focus miasma, “The Listener” suggests that “Flashpoint,” with its solidly high production values, was the exception rather than the rule for Canadian productions. Although more and more viewers are shifting to high-def, “The Listener” joins FOX’s “Mental” as part of the summer’s new wave of what might be called Public Access Chic.
I don’t want to make it sound as if I’m saying American TV networks shouldn’t pick up shows from Canada or shows produced in Colombia. The implication ought to be that American networks shouldn’t have to randomly pick up shows that are bad just to fill the summer void or just because they’re cheap and therefore display flexibility with the broadcast business model. Part of me is overjoyed that we’re getting all of this original scripted programming in the long hot months between May and September, but that’s probably the part of me that isn’t having to watch these shows.
“The Listener” is not a creative approach to the procedural drama. It’s not a creative twist on a paranormal drama. It’s not clever or innovative procedural. And while some viewers will likely appreciate leading man Olejnik, they’ll also prefer him when he isn’t talking, isn’t solving crimes and isn’t performing emergency medicine. It’s my assumption that NBC thinks he’s a star-in-the-making and that’s a big part of why “The Listener” is airing here. If that’s the case, this is not the vehicle that will make him a star, nor the vehicle that will cure NBC’s ratings doldrums.
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