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Fall '02: America's Most Haunted

UPN's new Tuesday night supernatural detective series Haunted is on the cusp of, maybe not greatness, but certainly adequacy. It's got a decent premise, competent acting and writing that is better than a lot of what passes for scripting on UPN. Still, there's just something missing, a piece or two that keeps this respectable show from rising to the level of, well, more respectable television. I have no idea what that piece is, by the way. If I did, I'd be taking pitch meetings and dating actresses instead of trying to pad my vague, irrelevant criticism.

Haunted follows the adventures of private investigator Frank Taylor, a former cop who recently suffered a near-death experience in the line of duty. Waking up from the bright light at the end of the tunnel, Taylor finds himself visited by the dead and buried. Real people, not just the rest of the UPN prime-time lineup.

Thanks, you've been great. I'll be here all week. Try the veal and tip your waitress.

It turns out that most of the deceased that annoy Frank will only start acting less like telemarketers and more like respectable souls if he takes down the person responsible for their current shortness of breath. So they rattle some doors, clank some chains, give Frank the chills and allow him occasional glimpses of their mottled, decaying flesh. Insert your own in-law joke here.

All of this works well for trying to establish a creepy mood, but after a while there's no escaping the fact that these poltergeists are a little lacking when it comes to brains. Maybe because those got blown out the back of their skulls. After all, these spirits can open and shut doors, manipulate plumbing and drop matchbooks in just the right place for Taylor to notice. Why don't they just pick up a pencil and make it easy for him? Instead of splashing the walls with blood to form some mystical symbol, why not just use the red stuff to write out "Jim Smith killed me. He lives at 501 Elm Street, apartment 4. He likes watching Jeopardy and has a guinea pig named Sniffles."

Haunted tries hard to be the creepiest show since The X-Files. But there's real scary and then there's TV scary and unless you're on HBO, television producers are forced to stick with TV scary. This means lots of grays and blacks, lots of underexposed film and plenty of enormous shadows. But there are only so many cats jumping out of dark closets one can sit through before one checks to see if, by some miracle, Frasier is funny again.

The X-Files wasn't a scary show because it had murky shots. It was a creepy series because it combined a unique style with intricate plots and unpredictable action. Last week Taylor approached a full, murky bathtub that a woman had died in. In this post-"Fatal Attraction" age, is there a man, woman or child alive who doesn't know that as soon as Frank got too close to the tub, something would grab him and drag him in?

Matthew Fox doesn't help much either. The former Party of Five star plays Taylor and tries to imbue him with the weariness and paranoia that apparently are the tell-tale symptoms of people getting visits from beyond the grave. But while the actor isn't bad when mourning his kidnapped son, his ass-kicking cop persona needs some work. This is not a knock on Fox's acting abilities. It's just that he's too damn cuddly and sincere. He looks like a cat person, and men that own cats are simply not hard-boiled detectives.

The best thing about Haunted is one of Fox's co-stars, John Mann. Mann plays Simon, the child-killer that nearly kills Taylor before Frank offs him. Simon is not happy with the current situation and has made it his purpose in death to menace Taylor whenever possible. Simon is nice and sinister. So evil, in fact, he deserves a spot on Haunted's lead-in show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy is a superior series in almost every respect except that it hasn't had a decent bad guy since season three. A murderous albino poltergeist might be just the ticket to get Joss Whedon's signature show back on track. Although Mann doesn't get much screen time, he makes the most of it and can snap into an insane grin that would land him in a mental hospital within minutes in the real world.

If you simply must watch TV on Tuesdays at nine, then Haunted isn't going to be the worst choice you can make. Dead people are usually good for a laugh, the boom mike never drops into the shot and the actors have all their teeth. It's a little more than mediocre, much less than appointment TV. And 24 doesn't come back for another two weeks.


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