We watch... so you don't have to.

Minor Miracles

A dust storm howls in an arid churchyard. A dog -- looking suspiciously like Tom Hanks' costar in "Turner and Hooch"-- barks menacingly as two construction workers use a crane to haul a coffin up out of the ground. The wind rattles the coffin. It splinters and falls. One worker is knocked to the ground, impaling his hand on a nail. (Ooh, symbolism!) And staring back at him from the splintered coffin is the pale, zombieish, perfectly preserved face of a dead nun.


That's the first 30 seconds or so of Miracles, ABC's new Monday night drama in which Skeet Ulrich investigates creepy religious phenomena while (presumably) remaining celibate. At least until sweeps, I'm guessing. Backed by "The Sixth Sense" producers Spyglass and Touchstone, it's a blatant attempt to bring the distinctively chilly style of M. Night Shymalan to television. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

My inner cynic urges me to ream Disney for their lack of originality, but honestly, there are many, many worse people to imitate than Shyamalan. He has a sure grasp of human drama, a Hitchcockian way with silence and ambient sound, and a knack for mixing the terrifying with the utterly ordinary. All of which the folks behind Miracles' pilot episode seem to have taken to heart.

The cinematography -- sun-bleached and grainy -- adds considerably to the series' apocalyptic air. Camera angles and shot placement in the pilot were impressively sophisticated, blurry and stylish enough to create atmosphere without ever leaving you wondering who forgot to clean the lens.

Miracles also gives you the creeps because it's so quiet. In the echoes of the characters' footsteps, in the patter of rain or the constant chug of train wheels, there's an ominous certainty that something really, really bad is going to happen. The infrequent background music consists mostly of discordant, shivering violins. Not exactly the most comforting sound in the world.

And when the supernatural does intrude, it's employed with admirable restraint. Okay, maybe the rain-of-blood dream sequence midway through the pilot isn't a pinnacle of subtlety. But the startling train-crash sequence toward the end, or the sight of blood forming the words "GOD IS NOW HERE" in a cracked windshield definitely raise the goosebump factor beyond that of your average Monday night viewing. (Unless the sight of The Practice's precipitous decline fills you with mortal terror. Which it might.) Miracles gets as much shivery mileage out of split-second glimpses of a some kind of demonic face as The X-Files wrung from entire episodes' worth of mutants and flukemen.

Miracles also employs the less-is-more approach to characterization, and it works. Ulrich doesn't exactly set the screen on fire as investigator Paul Callan, but he's not quite sleepwalking either. The pilot's winsome blind woman, with her milky-white eyes, gets a few nice little character moments. And, while it can't be an M. Night Shymalan swipe without a cute but troubled child, the terminally ill healer-boy featured in the first episode does admirably with only a few lines. His refrain of "I hope you feel better soon" is heebie-jeebie-inducing, but also surprisingly poignant.

In the weeks to come -- that is, in the few remaining weeks before low ratings inevitably lead to its cancellation and replacement with Celebrity Bachelor Mole Millionaire Factor -- I'll be curious to see if Miracles spent all its style in its first episode (as the late, not entirely lamented Haunted did.) Top-notch Angel producer David Greenwalt's involvement leads me to believe it hasn't. But in an age when TV executives openly admit that they don't want intelligent people watching their shows, Miracles' conspicuous lack of scantily clad lesbians and exploding motorcycles suggests that it may need some divine intervention of its own.


TeeVee - About Us - Archive - Where We Are Now

Got a comment? Mail us at teevee@teevee.org.

* * *