In the years since Lost staked claims in water cooler conversations, ABC has tried several times to recapture that mystery-laden throne, mostly to no avail. That may change with its newest “is it supernatural or aliens or wacky science?” drama The Whispers. And although I have no idea how long the show can possibly sustain its central storyline, the first few episodes sufficiently shoved me to the edge of my seat.
The impetus behind The Whispers – a name that’s almost a misnomer given the lack of whispers involved – is that a mysterious entity named Drill is communicating with children through light fixtures (or something) and giving them different tasks to perform as part of a “game.” Sometimes these duties are surprisingly malevolent, as seen in the premiere’s opening scene, and sometimes they’re more politically motivated. What’s more, Drill’s communication with the children isn’t only one-sided, and it fulfills its side of deals made with the kids.
Drill’s presence, which most adults assume is some form of imaginary friend, becomes the center of an investigation for FBI child specialist Claire Bennigan (Lily Rabe), whose own son Henry is also communicating with Drill. (He’s a deaf mute, but that’s hardly an obstacle here.) Claire’s husband Drew (Milo Ventimiglia) supposedly died in a plane crash, which doesn’t explain why there’s a bearded, tatted-up version of Drew currently walking around without any memories of what happened to him. And Claire’s partner Jessup Rollins (Derek Webster) is naturally having trouble keeping his co-worker grounded as the story go on.
On the other side of things is the Defense Department’s Wes Lawrence (Barry Sloane), a “friend” of Drew’s whose illicit relationship with Claire in the past has strained all bonds, particularly those between Claire and Wes’ wife Lena (Kristen Connolly). (It doesn’t help that Drill is also talking to the Lawrence daughter Harper (Kylie Rogers).) Wes’ work takes him across the planet to the desert, where some crazy shit is happening that may or may not be linked to Drill.
Because this is a show that is driven by surprises and reveals, it’s of course best to know as little as possible before going in. But know that while there is some stereotypically hyper-dramatic scene-chewing going on, The Whispers is a great taste of popcorn TV, with a driving plot that molds itself nicely around its mostly solid cast. Even the kids are largely enjoyable, and I’m not exactly the world’s biggest fan of child actors.
The Whispers was created by Soo Hugh and is based on the short story “Zero Hour” from legendary writer Ray Bradbury. (Oddly enough, Hugh also wrote for the ABC series Zero Hour that wasn’t based on that story.) Because it’s being co-produced by Amblin Television, it of course has Steven Spielberg’s name attached as an executive producer. And although this series feels like a strange amalgamation of Spielberg’s genre hits, it’s best not to use that as a reason to put The Whispers on a pedestal, as we all know that his outskirts-involvement didn’t turn Under the Dome or Extant into the most critically lauded dramas.
The first episode was directed by music video director Mark Romanek, who knows a little something about creepy stories, having helmed One Hour Photo and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” A sign of good weirdo fiction, there are several shots within The Whispers’ first few episodes that are worthy of being pulled out and framed. It still looks like an ABC drama, of course, but there are enough off-kilter camera angles that the ominousness is present without getting overwhelming.
In the end, I’m far more interested in all of the otherworldly aspects of Drill and its motives than I am in the intra-personal relationships of these characters, but that’s just how I roll. I like Rabe and Sloane a lot, mind you, but I’m hoping the bonkers mystery has enough steam to last the entirety of Season 1.
The Whispers will make its debut on ABC on Monday, June 1, at 10 p.m. ET. Keep an eye on your kids and your bathroom lights.