In Ray Bradbury’s short story “Zero Hour,” children from across the country become involved in a game called “Invasion.” Like most things kids are into, the parents think it’s harmlessly benign … until the invasion actually occurs. ABC’s The Whispers, produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television, plays off of the same setup. Once again, the parents think the imaginary friend their child has (despite the worrisome name “Drill”) is all part of their fun and games. Until the kids start killing.
ABC’s The Whispers is, for the most part, a fairly rote entry into a TV landscape already clogged with series about mysterious symbols, military conspiracies, possible alien involvement, and an overall question that may never be satisfyingly answered (the show’s creator, Soo Hugh, is also a producer for Under the Dome and was a writer for the short-lived, truly insane series Zero Hour). But, while The Whispers plays on the “possessed child” motif of many a horror movie, it actually does add in a little nuance and conflict to an old formula. Sure, some of the kids numbly cause disasters and gleefully try and “win” a game that is based around mayhem and death, but others actually start questioning what is right and wrong, and the whole nature of the game itself.
Those children (all of whom are connected through their parents’ and their parents’ access to the government, nuclear power plants, etc) are each chosen and spoken to by Drill, a disembodied figure viewers never see or hear — we only see the children talking to and interacting with him (he also is fond of futzing with the electricity). They essentially pray to him, seek his approval, and play games with him. Although, the games Drill likes to play usually end in death or destruction.
After a six-year-old girl, Harper (Abby Ryder Fortson) seems to be responsible for enacting a terrible plot against her mother, FBI child specialist Claire Bennigan (Lily Rabe) is brought in to try and assess her, and whether or not she was told to do these things by another person. From there, Claire begins to piece together the connection Drill has made to other children, and things they have done for him.
Complicating all of this is The Whispers’ small universe; the adult characters are all connected emotionally and through marriages, affairs, and partnerships of all kinds. The Whispers wastes no time in making this web clear, and in the second and third episodes (of the three sent as screeners), much of the drama simmers around these domestic disputes.
There is one adult seemingly connected to Drill, though (either for or against him is not yet clear): Milo Ventimiglia is an amnesiac war veteran covered in tattoos, which seem to be keys to unlocking Drill’s plan. Both he and a child named Minx (yes, really — played by Kylie Rogers) seem integral to whatever is unfolding, although others like Harper, and even Claire’s own son Henry (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) are also in communication with Drill, and do his bidding without question.
Things become more interesting, though, when the kids do start to question Drill and the motivations of the adults around them. The Whispers allows kids to be kids, and is true to the fact that they are in no way emotionally equipped to deal with the consequences of their actions, nor are they stealthy enough to handle the lies and obfuscations Drill requires of them.
However, The Whispers does prove that it is not very difficult to make kids really, really creepy. Although, frankly, it misses a beat by showing all of its paranormal cards at once. A far freakier (and much darker) concept might have been to let viewers wrestle with whether or not Drill is a real person. The idea that it might be a man (as the FBI seems to think early on) who is doing favors for these children and recruiting them into his army of death is a far more inherently frightening prospect than some kind of alien or demonic force.
But like most series based around a central mystery (in this case, who or what is Drill, and what is his end game?), The Whispers is boxed in by the grave consequences of its larger conspiracy, and seems like it could only have a finite run until things are too tedious and unnecessarily drawn out. On the other hand, the show doesn’t seem afraid to let its plot move quickly with many revelations being made in its first several episodes that plant a complex premise for the series to investigate. But like Drill, The Whispers’ true strength lies with the kids. But what happens to society when instead of protecting children, we need to be protected from them?
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
The Whispers premieres Monday, June 1st at 10 p.m. on ABC.