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Dead or Alive?

My first thought, upon watching USA's new drama series The Dead Zone, was in the form of a question.

I didn't wonder what the show's connection with the '80s movie starring Christopher Walken was, or if the absence of Stephen King's name from the title indicated that the famed horror author had disowned this version of the characters he created in book form.

I didn't ponder the mysteries of why this series, originally ordered by UPN as a midseason replacement for this past TV season -- and lauded by critics who saw the pilot last summer as one of the more promising series coming down the pike -- got summarily dumped by executives at the troubled network (what, Special Unit 2 was more promising?).

I wasn't curious about how the series was going to be able to stick with its premise, about a quiet schoolteacher who recovers from a seven-year coma to discover that his girlfriend has married another man (who is raising the son he never knew he had), his mother has died, and -- worst of all -- he's been cursed/blessed with psychic visions that only manifest themselves when he touches people or objects. Usually shows like The Dead Zone end up falling into the old Fugitive or Incredible Hulk model of sad-sack characters wandering from town to town, solving crimes and helping others while never really helping themselves.

But no, none of those thoughts occurred to me at the time, although they've occurred to me since. My first question was much more simple.

When in the world did Anthony Michael Hall become a real actor?

Sure, Hall has had some good roles in his life -- being a wisecracking teen in the endless stream of '80s John Hughes comedies made his name. But after 15 years pass, you can't rely on Wisecracking Teen anymore. Instead, you've got to show some level of depth -- and hope that people forget that year you were a cast member on Saturday Night Live.

We can quibble about Hall's skill in imitating Bill Gates in "The Pirates of Silicon Valley." But here, as cursed psychic Johnny Smith, Hall gives the performance of his career. He brings a dignified air to a show that would probably otherwise be insubstantial.

At least so far, The Dead Zone has not resorted to killer-of-the-week theatrics that would reduce it to being CSI: Psychic Guy. Instead, it's a show that's much more about tone than it is about plot (a subtlety apparently lost on the knuckleheads at UPN) -- and that's refreshing for a show like this.

The series' second episode, featuring the hunt for a serial killer, isn't remotely played as a whodunit. Instead, it's a somewhat thoughtful, somewhat creepy piece about intertwined fate (Johnny's powers to foresee the future save one woman from the killer, but only by accidentally diverting him to another victim). Johnny's visions are the core of the show, slickly shot sequences where he foresees the future or relives the past, often in the shoes of the person who is committing the crime. In the most intriguing sequence, Johnny discusses what happened at a crime scene with his sidekick Bruce (John L. Adams) while, simultaneously, we see the killer and his prospective victim standing in the same positions on the night of the crime.

Mixed in with Johnny's psychic angst is his personal trouble: he's physically damaged from his accident and the years in a coma; Sarah, the love of his life (Nicole deBoer), is still around him, but she's now married to the local sheriff (Chris Bruno); his son doesn't even know he's the kid's real father; and his weird powers understandably separate him from the other residents of his hometown.

Most encouraging about the series is its unflinching willingness to let the story take its course, rather than getting into a same-thing-every-week rut. In the pilot, Johnny emerges from a coma. In the second episode, he solves a crime -- and makes front-page news. In the third, he deals with the ramifications of his new celebrity while proving to many that he's no fraud, but has a real gift. Where the series goes from here is a mystery -- USA has ordered a total of 13 episodes for its inaugural season -- but one would hope that a story arc is in the offing.

And one would hope that such an arc wouldn't involve the apparent villains of this series, Charles Winchester -- uh, I mean Reverend Purdy (David Ogden Stiers) -- and aggressive reporter Dana Bright (Kristen Dalton). Purdy is Johnny's legal guardian, apparently setting us up for several tiresome scenes of confrontation as the Reverend attempts to get Johnny committed to a mental institution so that he can keep control of the lucrative estate of Johnny's mother. Meanwhile, our crusading journalist seems to be the worst of cliches, the aggressive reporter who won't take no for an answer and ends up causing more harm than good. You know, like that guy on The Incredible Hulk.

Still, annoying potential villains aside, The Dead Zone is a surprise. No, not because it's pretty entertaining, airs on the USA network, and offers more style and substance than most of the basic-cable summer series out there (yes, we mean you, Witchblade).

It's because Anthony Michael Hall is a TV star, and he's actually carrying the load. Remind me again when Anthony Michael Hall become an actor? I just don't remember.


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