Welcome to the world of Johnny Smith, where "reach out and touch someone" has a very different meaning. I didn’t start as a big fan of "The Dead Zone". Passably familiar with the Steven King novel and movie of the same name, I was aware a former brat packer was starring in what presumably would be another brain-insulting science fiction television show. However, one night while channel surfing my fiancée and I came across an interesting looking scene about a haunted house. With an intriguing story and brilliant visuals, we were hooked within thirty seconds of stopping on the channel. That story turned out to be the first season "The Dead Zone" episode "The House".
From that hour we were avid Dead Zone fans. We anxiously awaited for USA Network to start running the show again from the beginning, so we could see how Johnny Smith gained his psychic powers, and the relationships between the characters start from scratch. We watched every episode, waited with bated breath for Season two, and then gobbled those episodes up as well. "The Dead Zone" is science fiction television showing some of its finest work. It’s part Quantum Leap, part Babylon 5, part Incredible Hulk, and part something we’ve not seen before – at least not on television in this caliber.
"The Dead Zone" (based on the Steven King novel) centers around Johnny Smith (Anthony Michael Hall), a science teacher who winds up in a terrible accident and goes into a coma for 6 years. When he comes out of the coma, his brain has rewired itself if you will, utilizing a typically dormant part, a "dead zone". Because of this Johnny has psychic visions, typically when he comes into contact with people or things.
Life didn’t stop just because Johnny was in a coma, and through the show he is surrounded by faces and people he used to know. Most prominently is Nicole deBoer (who previously worked with producer Michael Pillar on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine") who plays Johnny’s former girlfriend and fiancée Sarah, who is now married to the town sheriff Walt Bannerman (Chris Bruno). Bruno, deBoer, and Hall keep their character’s relationship interesting and alive. Often Walt and Johnny have to work together to help people, but at times that doesn’t mean they like each other very much. Both men love Sarah, very much the subject of conflict between them. What seems like a stale triangle cliché is kept very interesting by the writers and actors, and on a show where things aren’t allowed to stagnate, the relationship is pushed to it’s limits quite frequently.
Also supporting Johnny is his physical therapist and newfound friend Bruce (John L. Adams) and a bit of a mystery figure in Reverend Purdy (David Odgen Stiers). The Reverend is the head of a religious organization, very much in the model of Jerry Fallwell, albeit a lot more liberal. A former friend of Johnny’s mother, Purdy tries to help Johnny although at times his loyalties have been called into question.
The first season of "The Dead Zone" focused on different aspects of Johnny’s power, and only in the season finale was Greg Stillson (Sean Patrick Flanery), the primary antagonist of King’s novel introduced. Season Two starts to expand on the Stillson storyline, at the same time making it clear that unlike the novel, Johnny has many more obstacles in life than a congressional candidate. In "Valley of the Shadow" Johnny has to deal with a kidnapper who seems to be testing Johnny’s abilities. The conflict between Walt and Johnny is brought to the forefront in "Descent" and "Ascent" as Walt is caught in a cave in and it’s up to Johnny to save the man married to the woman he used to love. In "Precipitate" Johnny is given a blood transfusion and has visions about the life of 6 different people, one of which is going to die. "Misbegotten" brings Tracy Gold back to the small screen as a fanatic who kidnaps Johnny Smith. And Louis Gossett Jr. guest stars in "Zion" which gives us some backstory on Bruce and an amazing view of an alternate path as Bruce gets to share Johnny’s Dead Zone for a moment.
That’s not to say the season doesn’t have its duds. Among the weaker episodes is "Cabin Pressure" where Johnny has a vision of the plane he’s on going down. And as much fun as "Deja Voodoo" was to watch in a Groundhog Day kind of way, the story of Johnny changing minor moments in time to end at different results went against most of the established rules for the show. Still, "The Dead Zone" is one of the best sci-fi shows on television, so even at its worst it’s above most other shows of the genre. The Complete Second Season release of "The Dead Zone" tries hard to get a DVD release right. The first thing you notice when you open the packaging is an insert card correcting the DVD content list. It’s a minor change, and something that even a DVD enthusiast such as myself would have overlooked, but it obviously was important enough to the folks at Lions Gate Films to make a correction. That’s the kind of love and care you get from this DVD set. The episodes look and sound as good as you would expect from a show just nine months old, but the extras put this set at the high end of TV show DVD sets.
First each disk has a behind the scenes section that walks you through a different area of creating the show. From writing and casting, to location scouting, to filming and special effects, the documentaries show you exactly how a television show is made. It’s a very interesting thing to watch, especially if you like to see stuff like that.
Secondly every episode has a commentary track And, in a fantastic move from the Production Company, they mix it up. You don’t get sixteen episodes of Anthony Michael Hall telling you how much fun this episode was to make. You don’t get sixteen episodes of a writer telling you what his influences were. You get a writer and the guest star of the episode, or Hall and one of his co-stars, or any number of infinite combinations. More importantly, the commentaries are FUN. These aren’t boring stories. They are interesting stories and interruptions of cast and crew telling you how hot actresses are, or how they tried to ask so-and-so out and then found out he/she was married. When guest star Eric Schaeffer made the first episode’s commentary track so lively I hoped it wasn’t just a mistake, but as I listened to more of them I found myself really enjoying hearing these people talk about their trade and the fun they have on the set. That fun comes through in their commentaries and makes the show so much more enjoyable. John L Adams (aka "da kid") has always had fun with his column on the Dead Zone website, but that’s nothing compared to hearing him try to get Hall to dish some dirt on fellow actors.
Finally most of the episodes have some additional extra, whether it’s a deleted scene or storyboard. The deleted scenes are a lot of fun, showing ideas that never happened (some of them really good ideas) or alternate ways of communicating information. The storyboards are of less interest, but at least they gave us more then just episodes.
"The Dead Zone – The Complete Second Season" is a good buy if you are a Dead Zone fan, especially if you want to get that extra information on how a show works, or hear the fun of the cast and crew interacting. If you’re not a Dead Zone fan I still recommend picking this up. It is one of the best shows on television, and its DVD set should be a model for other shows to follow.
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