When the USA Network lost its rights to telecast the WWF two years ago, it was widely perceived as a body slam to the basic cabler. Now, with the WWF — excuse me, WWE — in a ratings free fall, it seems like this stroke of good luck forced the net to develop better programming. In fact, USA has bounced back off the Nielsen canvas with two of the summer’s highest-rated new cable series, The Dead Zone and Monk.
Ironically, these shows are the antithesis of Vince McMahon’s aesthetic: They’re about average guys with superhuman mental strength. Traumatic auto-related events trigger their psychological powers: The Dead Zone’s Johnny Smith (Anthony Michael Hall) awakens from a car-crash-induced six-year coma to discover he can see visions of people’s past, present, and future. And in the aftermath of his wife’s death in a car bombing, detective Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) develops an extreme case of obsessive-compulsive disorder that enables him to analyze evidence in mind-boggling detail.
Both dramas are built around can’t-take-your-eyes-off-’em lead performances. With his naturally battle-scarred complexion and spooked-out orbs, Hall looks like he’s been in a long-term coma. Since his days as John Hughes’ resident geek god, he’s gained heft as an actor, literally and figuratively. His Johnny isn’t as creepy as Christopher Walken’s was in David Cronenberg’s 1983 film version (inspired, as is the series, by Stephen King’s novel), nor should he be; would you want to invite a Walken zombie into your home every week? Hall even tosses off a few one-liners with an old pro’s comic timing. Temporarily rehired at the Maine high school where he used to teach science, Johnny disarms unruly students with this quip: ”I may just be your worst nightmare — a substitute teacher with extra-sensory perception.”
Shalhoub, familiar to USA viewers from years of endless Wings reruns, has finally found a TV vehicle to display the dazzling talents he’s shown in big-screen roles from slithery alien Jack Jeebs in the MIB movies to silver-tongued lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider in The Man Who Wasn’t There. He doesn’t overplay Monk’s OCD symptoms for cheap laughs; instead, he subtly conveys the quiet misery of a man who’s trapped in vicious cycles of irrational behavior. Deftly shifting between scenes of pathos and physical comedy, he renders Monk as an endearingly original hero, a germaphobe who’s fighting to clean up the gritty streets of San Francisco without getting his hands dirty.
Alas, the series’ supporting casts aren’t so uniformly spotless. A League of Their Own’s Bitty Schram, who’s like a less strident Debi Mazar, plays off Shalhoub amusingly as Sharona Fleming, Monk’s tough-tawkin’ nurse/gal Friday. But Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs) deserves better than the half-note role of the hotheaded police captain who’s eternally skeptical of Monk’s unorthodox methods.
The Dead Zone’s most affecting subplot involves the sprightly Nicole deBoer (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) as Johnny’s ex-fiancee, Sarah, who gave up hope and married the town’s foursquare sheriff (Chris Bruno) — but not before bearing Johnny’s namesake son. Such a triangle may be a soapy cliche, but it’s played with real conviction by Hall, deBoer, and All My Children alum Bruno. If only John L. Adams (as Johnny’s physical therapist/man Friday) and M*A*S*H vet David Ogden Stiers (as a shady reverend who became the coma victim’s legal guardian) had equally well-defined parts.
Like all shows, USA’s duo will rise or fall based on the quality of their scripts, which have been uneven so far. Created by father-and-son Star Trek scribes Michael and Shawn Piller, The Dead Zone has used Hall’s powers to spin a clever variation on 12 Angry Men — Johnny must convince 11 other jurors of a defendant’s innocence based solely on his psychic insight. Yet another episode relied too heavily on corny 1940s flashbacks as Johnny helped a WWII vet find his long-lost love (the dialogue was straight out of a Jon Lovitz-Phil Hartman SNL old-movie parody: ”Man oh man, a dolly just walked in to beat the band!”). And while Monk’s pilot, penned by Rat Race’s Andy Breckman, was fresh and funny, the second episode felt like a rerun, right down to the shadow-of-the-Golden Gate Bridge epilogue.
Still, compared to previous USA Network dreck like Weird Science (based on Hall’s 1985 flick), Silk Stalkings, and Duckman, The Dead Zone and Monk pack more creative muscle than The Rock and Triple H combined. And if you don’t like them, you can always watch the WWE on TNN. The Dead Zone: B Monk: B+