Review: ABC’s ‘The Whispers’ offers creepy kids and little more

As director and producer, few storytellers have utilized the wonderment and fascination (and sometimes horror) of children as points-of-entry into the wonderment and fascination of the adult world more effectively than Steven Spielberg has. 

Conversely, Spielberg has also masterfully used the normalized responses of children to the abnormal as an approach to disarm world-weary grown-ups. 

From Cary Guffey in “Close Encounters” to Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore in “E.T.” to Heather O'Rourke in “Poltergeist” to Christian Bale in “Empire of the Sun” to Haley Joel Osment in “A.I.” to Dakota Fanning in “Taken” and “War of the Worlds,” Spielberg has always know that there's something pure and primal in the reactions of children and that those reactions can be used to steer the reactions viewers of all ages.

Steven Spielberg is one of the executive producers of ABC's new “the kids are not alright” drama “The Whispers,” but his participation has been underplayed by the network. Partially I suspect that's because Spielberg's name isn't just a non-factor when it comes to TV audiences, one could almost argue that it has become a warning of sorts. ABC knows this all too well after the failure of the Spielberg EPed “Lucky 7” and “The River” in recent years.

But it's one thing not to mention Spielberg's limited involvement with something like “Lucky 7,” because ordinary people winning the lottery isn't a subject matter that fans associate with the Oscar-winning director of “Jurassic Park,” but when it comes to a story of innocent children being drawn into dark circumstances by mysterious forces of unknown origin as grown-ups frantically search to a cause? That's totally Steven Spielberg's wheelhouse. 

ABC might not be trumpeting Steven Spielberg's name with “Whispers” because the network doesn't think his name will help the drama, which premieres on Monday (June 1) night, but the smarter reason why they may not be using his name is because tying Spielberg's name to “Whispers” is a guaranteed linkage to a dozen movies and television shows that do what “Whispers” is trying to do and do it better.

If, on the most basic level, you find scary kids to be scary and your reaction to scary kids being scary is so intense that you don't require anything else from a drama, there's a good chance that you'll like “Whispers.” It has little unblinking children delivering ominous dialogue in measured monotones and it has a lot of that. It has nothing else, but I'm not going to try to tell you that that's not something. So if you don't care about adult characters or a plot that progresses with any sort of momentum in the direction of anything resembling answers? “Whispers” may be your new summer obsession, because scary kids are unquestionably scary. Steven Spielberg understood you need more than that for great storytelling, but maybe he was wasting his time with all of that other stuff.

More on “Whispers” after the break…

I can't tell you what “Whispers” is actually about. I can tell you what it was formerly about, what the original pilot that ABC picked up was about. But somewhere between ordering “The Whispers” to series and scheduling it for midseason and deciding to keep it on the shelf until summer, ABC decided that Soo Hugh's very loose adaptation of Ray Bradbury's “Zero Hour” should no longer be overtly about the thing it was once about and will now probably eventually be about that, but I've seen three episodes and we're not even close to knowing the couple conclusive things that were once a part of the original pilot and are now gone.

That's a choice. 

It's a choice that makes it very difficult for me to do my job and made it impossible for me to find any sort of viewing momentum with “The Whispers.” But it's a choice.

We live in an age of No Breadcrumbs TV, an age predicated on the notion that because many viewers wait and binge two or three or 10 episodes at once that it's no longer necessary to distribute the path markers that were once necessary to steer audiences along on a journey.

You can, if you like, question whether showrunners understand No Breadcrumbs TV. BBC America's “Intruders” and The CW's “The Messengers” were just two recent dramas that premiered with pilots that were practically unintelligible and dared audiences to follow along, even if there was nothing worth following. Neither show got a second season, which is either a coincidence or a direct byproduct of believing that ambiguity alone is a viable hook. 

Netflix's “Sense8” may be the most breadcrumb-less drama yet in this No Breadcrumbs TV era. I've seen three episodes and the challenge of giving any sort of description for the Wachowskian drama is daunting. What will keep me watching “Sense8” if ever I have the time to do so is that as all-encompassingly cryptic as its main narrative initially may be, there's a thematic richness to it that I can't deny. “Sense8” may be more of a graduate student thesis on 21st Century Globalism and The Fungibility of Gender and Sexual Identity  in Genre Fiction, but at least it's something that feels unique.

“Whispers,” whatever it may be, does not feel unique. It in fact feels like nearly every not-wholly-successful piece of sci-fi/mythology-driven TV that ABC tried to develop and premiere with “Lost” when ABC failed to understand that the unsolved riddles were only the tiniest piece of what made “Lost” work.

I'm thinking “Invasion,” “Flash Forward,” the remake of “V,” or something like “Zero Hour,” which premiered after “Lost” was done and, confusingly, also featured Soo Hugh as a writer, but wasn't based on the Bradbury short story.

I guess the plot goes like this: Children in Vancouver [or whatever American city Vancouver is hilariously and ineffectively pretending to be] are doing strange things, steered by the urging of their imaginary friend, an unseen entity featuring the unlikely name of “Drill.” They have long chats with Drill and then awful things happen to grown-ups and sometimes they have long conversations with Drill and he asks them to do stuff and then he proves disarmingly helpful. 

It happens that Drill is taking particular interest in kids whose parents are associated with different government and military operations, so the grown-ups in “Whispers” include Department of Defense bigwig Wes (Barry Sloane), who had an affair with Claire Bennigan (Lily Rabe), an FBI child specialist mourning the disappearance of her husband, who I think was an Air Force pilot or something like that. Wes' wife Lena (Kristen Connolly) may or may not have a bureaucratic tie-in, but she's certainly not a human character, so it doesn't matter. [The story desperately needs a more “normal” grown-up character, somebody who responds to everything in a relatable way, rather than just with professional concern. It has no such character, no point-of-entry for the audience.]

The core problem that renders “Whispers” completely bloodless is the apparent conviction that having children steered by an unseen entity to do bad things to their parents isn't high enough stakes to be the spine of a TV series. Instead, Drill is doing something with the kids that relates to some utterly generic sub-“24” terrorist activities. “Something possessing our children” ought to be stakes enough, but when you add “Something is possessing our children blah blah blah nuclear blah blah blah” that seemingly becomes enough to build a show around, but when you add that “nuclear blah blah blah” you get parents whose fears relating to their children become secondary to their fears about generic attacks that are impossible to care about. There is no adult character in “Whispers” who feels flesh-and-blood because every one of their priorities seem out-of-whack. So long scenes go by with Wes and Claire and other characters in situation rooms or yelling at partners on cell phones or having car chases through Vancouver and in each and every situation, my only reaction was, “Stop thinking you're Jack Bauer and pay more attention to your child, who is having conversations with Satan/ET/Caillou.” Even Jack Bauer was, if you'll recall, much more initially worried about Kim than a threat on a presidential candidate.

The grown-ups are bad spouses, bad parents and they're not very good at their jobs, because through three episodes, “Whispers” remains bogged down in a narrative mystery that could be at least partially unraveled if people stopped and had conversations about Drill-based connections that the audience already knows about. Dramatic irony is satisfying right up until the point at which it transitions into impatience and after three episodes I no longer felt cool for knowing connections the characters on-screen don't know. I felt contempt and disappointment, because “scary kids are scary” really doesn't sustain excitement for very long for me. I also personally like a little subtext with my sci-fi and other than “Kids are our most precious resource so it's bad when things happen to them,” “The Whispers” is pretty vacuous.

Directed at least partially by the very talented Mark Romanek — I don't know if he also handled all of the obfuscating reshoots — the “Whispers” pilot at least has some formal moodiness. Romanek uses lighting and camera angles well to generate a low level of paranoia and he seems to be in proper Spielbergian awe of the child actors, particularly Abby Ryder Fortson and Kylie Rogers. But as often happens when a really strong pilot director is replaced by network TV assembly line veterans, what was eerie and unsettling about the pilot is replaced by by-the-numbers thriller aspects in subsequent episodes. The interiors become interchangeably overlit and the exteriors are just Vancouver bog standard, what atmosphere there once was is drained away in tension-free set pieces and even the kids become less distressingly Midwich Cuckoos-y and more Hollywood moppets in need of a hug and somebody to help them blow their noses.

The information that was formerly in the pilot and that now remains in yet-to-appear limbo dimensionalized the children and their plight and the prolonging of the mystery leaves the children stuck playing repetitious beats with diminishing returns. And their parents don't especially care about them, so why should we?

“The Whispers” is ultimately a frustratingly hollow experience, an assortment of familiar genre cliches and a stubborn insistence that its primary mystery will remain enticing for us even without hints or the gratification of answers that, in theory, would only elevate the stakes. In a different TV world, one in which summer remained the original programming wasteland it used to be, I might be patient with “Whispers,” but that's not the case. “Wayward Pines” is doing similar things on network and doing them better. “Sense8” will be doing comparably frustrating things, only with more depth, on Netflix starting on Friday. I see no long-term reward here.

“The Whispers” premieres on ABC on Monday, June 1.