“The Dead Zone” (2002-2007)
Developed by: Michael Piller and Shawn Piller based on The Dead Zone by Stephen King
Featuring: Anthony Michael Hall, Nicole de Boer, Chris Bruno, John L. Adams and Connor Price
Johnny Smith: “I had the perfect life until I was in a coma for six years. And then I woke up, and found my fiancé, married to another man. My son doesn’t know who I am. Everything has changed, including me. One touch and I could see things. Things that happened. Things that will happen. You should see what I see…”
Released this month on DVD is the now cancelled sci-fi television series “The Dead Zone” (2002-2007) based not only the Stephen King novel of the same name but also the David Cronenberg movie “The Dead Zone” (1983) which for almost all of its six seasons proved that it is possible to stretch a narrative into something not only cohesive but popular and highly original. What the show did with its narrative was something that many viewers would recognise today while it had many threads that were overacting through its run there were still ‘monster of the week’ stories as well which while keeping to a typical format were still extremely enjoyable, this came down to behind the camera talents as well as the original casting which included Anthony Michael Hall as Johnny Smith and a host of supporting roles filled by some talented character actors.
The series was based around small-town teacher Johnny Smith is involved in a car accident that leaves him comatose for approximately six years. After regaining consciousness, Johnny begins having visions of the past and future triggered by touching items or people; doctors attribute the visions to activity in a previously unused “dead zone” of his brain that is attempting to compensate for the impaired function of the portions injured in the accident. Johnny also learns that his fiancée, Sarah, gave birth to his son in the interim following the accident, but has since married another man. With the help of Sarah, her husband (and town sheriff) Walt Bannerman, and physical therapist Bruce, Johnny begins using his abilities to help solve crimes. However, his attempts to do good are complicated by intermittent visions of apocalyptic events brought about following the future election of congressional candidate Greg Stillson.
“The Dead Zone” was designed by Michael and Shawn Piller who had previously worked for years within the ‘Star Trek’ Universe so were able to bring much of their genre experience to bear in this series which shows with the type of stories that were being told as well as the use of special abilities to overcome any narrative hurdles. Of course the other element that comes into play with this series, in fact with any property of this type is the original author Stephen King who for the past six decades has been a constant with his books, as well the many adaptations of his work which have been all been of varied quality. In fact we now have lived through enough of his work that we are now seeing remakes of his adaptations coming through thick and fast. It could be said that this series of “The Dead Zone” was the first reimagining of an earlier adaptation. Of course just because something is remade, rebooted or reimagined it doesn’t mean it is an improvement as “The Mist” (2018), “The Stand” (2021) and “The Children of the Corn” (2020) prove, the originals of these were so much better for a variety of reasons. However for all the terrible re-adaptations there are some amazing ones including the incredible “Doctor Sleep” (2020) as well as “It: Chapter One” (2017), I would also add “The Dead Zone” to that list, at least for much of its run, but not all.
There is so much that goes into a hit or even a good television show but one of the first elements is the story and narrative which here mostly comes from a novel written in 1983, what the producers of the show were able to do was to take the bones of that story and stretch it out over six seasons as well as taking what was great about all the characters and making sure that from week to week there was enough going on that would prove who those characters were which would inform the plot that they were involved in. It was unfortunate then that the showrunners could not keep up with their own ambitions which meant instead of the series ending on bang it went in a whimper something the show nor the audience deserved.
In terms of the characters, who were all as compelling as those from the novel and the movie, who almost always operated in as believable way as they could for a fantasy show were all compelling from Johnny who missed out on the love of his life as well as a significant portion of his son’s life to his ex girlfriend and mother of his son who married another man, Walt who was the heart of the show, he had to balance his relationship with his wife, his adopted son and the man who was the first choice of both. It was complex and illustrated how a new type of family could co-exist with each other, something absolutely original for television at the time. Then there was Reverend Purdy whose machinations were never truly seen, was he a good guy or a rip off artist, did he really love Johnny or was he using him. These were all character pieces that were imbedded into each story regardless of what each episode was about, it was genius, and kept viewers hooked.
The casting really assisted this series starting with Anthony Michael Hall who most people knew from his appearance in John Hughes movies and was looking for a meaty role that would prove he could act as an adult which “The Dead Zone” did as well as proving he could lead a series and be excellent in it. Hall really illustrated in each episode that he could not only cope with the fantastical elements but could drive home all his internal feelings about his life and all that he had lost after coming out of his coma. With support from Nicole de Boer, Chris Bruno, John L. Adams and Connor Price we also see character actors who all know exactly what type of genre show they are in but also are able to like Hall show us real people with very real issues outside of all the fantastical elements.
Remembering that this show was viewed on older televisions it is amazing that despite this the way in which the show draws people into Johnny’s visions is actually not only quite spectacular but never gets old. It is a technique that when it occurs viewers are immediately sucked into what is being experienced by everyone involved, this effect is no less dramatic on new screens, my only wish is that this was released on blu-ray to take advantage of better sound as well as a wider color palette.
In case you have not guessed I recommend this show highly the only caveat is that the final season really falls off as well as ending on a cliffhanger but those first five seasons are just excellent, it rates for me in the upper quarter of great Stephen King adaptations along with the original movie and book.
Wheel of Fortune: After six years in a coma following a near-fatal car accident, Johnny Smith awakens to find that he has the gift of second sight and uses his psychic powers to help solve a serial murder case.
What It Seems: Johnny (Anthony Michael Hall) uses his psychic powers to help solve a serial murder case.
Quality of Life: After returning to his old high school teaching job, Johnny begins to trust his powers after they allow him to save a high school all-star athlete from a possibly fatal heart condition. But with each vision, it makes Johnny physically weaker since the visions take a drain on his life energy.
Enigma: While Johnny and Bruce help an old man to find the long lost love of his life, Johny falls in love with the woman through the visions he has of her in the past.
Unreasonable Doubt: When Johnny is called to serve jury duty, he uses his powers to uncover the real truth about a murder case.
The House: Johnny learns details of his mother’s death that have been a secret kept by Purdy.
Enemy Mind: While searching for a runaway teenage girl, Johnny is accidentally exposed to a hallucinogenic drug following a drug lab explosion, and he must contend with being high which hinders his visions, and trying to rescue her from a brutal thug.
Netherworld: Struck with a vision of a fiery explosion, Johnny Smith must distinguish between his dream world and reality in order to prevent a disaster.
The Siege: When a disgruntled electrician, named Conrad Hurley, robs a bank and takes hostages, including Sarah, Johnny must try to change an ever-changing future where either Sarah or himself is killed.
Here There Be Monsters: Despite a terrifying vision, Johnny tries to help a tiny, superstitious town in Massachusettets where fear and paranoia has gripped the community following a little girl’s disappearance, where he and and Bruce soon become suspects.
Dinner with Dana: Things heat up between Johnny Smith and Dana Bright, the news reporter who’s been hounding him since he woke up, during a pretend date she plans to use as the basis for a cover story.
Shaman: Johnny Smith’s visions reach across time when he joins forces with a psychic Native American Shaman from centuries past to avert a major disaster.
Destiny: When Johnny Smith’s prediction of a tragic fire comes true, the incident brings him unwanted media coverage, as well as the attention of Greg Stillson, a very ambitious young candidate for congress.
Valley of the Shadow: The season premiere finds Johnny still shaken by his Armagedon visions and growing increasingly obsessed with Stillson whom he’s secretly investigating
Descent: Johnny struggles to rescue four teens trapped in a collapsing mine, all the while reliving – and in some way trying to redeem – sins from his family’s past.
Ascent: Walt ends up in a coma after being injured during the mine rescue. Johnny tries to use his powers to reach Walt in his mind and lead him back to consciousness. But while inside Walt’s mind, and reliving how he first met Sarah, among other things, Johnny realizes that he is not the only person inside Walt’s memories. There is also a mysterious man, who is Walt’s father, trying to make him go into the light…
The Outsider: Johnny takes on a major corporation to prevent the mass marketing of a drug he foresees will cause terrible birth defects years down the line.
Precipitate: When Johnny is injured and infused with a blood product stemming from six different people, he begins having visions through the donors eyes.
Scars: Johhny’s decision to join the re-election campaign of Stillson’s (Sean Patrick Flannery) chief opponent, Harrison Fisher (Gerald McRaney) has unintended consequences.
Misbegottten: Johnny is kidnapped by a gang of three women inspired by The Blair Witch Project (1999), who plan to use his abilities to solve a murder mystery from the past and create their own next hit indie horror by filming everything that happens.
Cabin Pressure: On a flight to Washington with Purdy (David Ogden Stiers), Johnny has a vision of their plane crashing and must convince the pilot and onboard Air Marshall to risk the lives of everyone on board.
The Man Who Never Was: A terrifying vision leads to Johnny’s involvement with a man (Robert Culp) with a mysterious past who suddenly disappears.
Dead Men Tell Tales: Johnny inadvertently becomes involved with the local mafia when his visions lead him to help mobster Cathan Donnegal, whom he sees being gunned down by a local hood, Mickey. When Donnegal’s thugs threaten Johnny to make him help them investigate, the visions lead Johnny to a mobster’s moll, Nina, who has connections to the shady Greg Stillson. Stillson is back in town, seeking to buy up the land of an old Indian gambling casino to pocket more money for his political campaign; and his right-hand man/thug, Sonny Elliman, also shares time with the thrill-seeking Nina.
Playing God: When Johnny is reunited with two close friends from high school, one of whom is awaiting a heart transplant (Lochlyn Munro), he is tormented by a vision of the other (Ally Sheedy) becoming the donor.
Zion: The death of Bruce’s (John L. Adams) father, Pastor David Lewis (Louis Gosset Jr.), leads Bruce on an amazing journey down the road not taken.
The Storm: When Johnny is caught in a deadly storm, he is forced to come to terms with his own destiny in order to save those he loves.
Plague: When J.J. (Spencer Achtymichuk) falls prey to a deadly new virus sweeping across the Northeast, Johnny must use his powers to solve the medical mystery in time to save his son’s life.
Deja Voodoo: Johnny meets a beautiful woman (Reiko Aylesworth) in danger and is reminded again of the potentially dire consequences of even the smallest of choices.
The Hunt: ‘Government Remote Viewing Unit’ tries Johnny Smith’s special ability in the war against terror in a military operation.
The Mountain: Johnny, Walt, Sarah and JJ become involved in the search through the mountains for a missing plane, which contains two million dollars.
The Combination: Danny Avila is training hard for his first ever boxing title match, but John Smith urges him to drop out.
Visions: A man in a vision stuns John Smith by yelling at him and blames him for a bad future.
Finding Rachel: Part 1: Johnny becomes the prime suspect in a case involving a missing woman and is confronted by her sister (Sarah Wynter), who clamors for his arrest.
Finding Rachel: Part 2: Following his arrest for the murder of a young volunteer for the Stillson (Sean Patrick Flanery) campaign, Johnny struggles to persuade the victim’s sister (Sarah Wynter) to help him find the real killer.
Collision: A mother is devastated as her daughter has disappeared. John’s visions of her collide with visions from his own accident nine years ago.
The Cold Hard Truth: A radio talk show host upsets John so much that he enters the radio station to tell him to behave. As it’s in vain, John visualizes the radio host fall from a high roof.
Total Awareness: Johnny and a young woman who can “see” numbers are on the run from defense contractor agents out to protect an information gathering program which could mean an end to all privacy.
No Questions Asked: Sarah fears Walt is seeing another woman and asks John to talk to him. He sees Walt hug the widow of a cop that died ten years ago. On top of that Walt has lost his police gun to an ex-convict.
Looking Glass: Two law students fear Johnny’s powers are the ultimate invasion of privacy and decide to prove that his visions can be wrong. But Johnny discovers he might have been right after all.
Speak Now: John gets problematic visions about a wedding soon to be.
Cycle of Violence: John visualizes a shooting drama at a local school.
Instinct: A mysterious tiny sound drive animals so mad that they attack people.
Shadows: When Johnny foresees the death of someone very close to him, he must confront his inner demons before they push him to the brink of murder.
Tipping Point: In a vision Christopher Wey urges John to make Reverend Purdy tell the truth about Mike Kennedy’s death. The following blackout makes John seek advice on brain surgery.
Broken Circle: John lies in hospital, where Bruce tells him that he has had an 11 hour long brain surgery, and Rebecca is shot dead by the police. John has lost his visions and despairs.
The Collector: A young homeless girl at a social center where Sarah volunteers has disappeared and John’s vision about it makes him contact Walt.
Double Vision: A beautiful woman in a neighbor car at red lights distracts John and he slightly hits a man when they turn green. The man runs away. Touching his car at the hit spot John visualizes the shooting of a man.
Still Life: John and Bruce find a painting of a young woman by a living legend at John’s doorstep. As he touches the painting John visualizes her face covered with her blood.
Heroes & Demons: An autistic boy knocks on John’s door. He expresses himself mainly with adventurous drawings that he makes inspired by Tolkien. His father has got a death penalty.
The Last Goodbye: A young man takes up his long dead father’s legendary rock carrier, but when John touches the father’s Fender guitar, he visualizes him selling it 15 years after his ‘death’.
Grains of Sand: John tries to save a young mother and her infant from a car in a wild river. He saves the boy but visualizes that he must keep him away from the authorities and find his father.
Vanguard: At a school class reunion John touches his old pupil Alex Conners and visualizes him die in a ‘Doomsday’ fire.
Babble On: John gets visions about his father and why he was hospitalized.
Coming Home: Sarah’s father has moved into a retirement home nearby where many residents fear to have their souls stolen by the shadow man and it’s somehow supported by John’s visions.
Saved: Greg Stillson’s girlfriend is missing and he begs John to help him find her.
A Very Dead Zone Christmas: When female psychic Alex Sinclair (Jennifer Finnigan) pays Johnny (Anthony Michael Hall) a surprise Christmas visit, the two work together to solve the mystery of one very lost and confused Santa.
Forbidden Fruit: Johnny races to find a way to stop the wedding of Miranda Ellis and Greg Stillson, while a political crisis develops that brings Stillson one step closer to the White House.
Independence Day: A lighthearted Fourth of July road trip turns into a nightmare after Johnny is hit with a vision of Bruce dying in a car crash.
Panic: When a young man comes to the Smith house in danger, Johnny uses images of his family’s WWII past to save the group.
Articles of Faith: A young Muslim boy is murdered, and the white supremacist son of a new Faith Heritage minister takes credit. While Dana uncovers the minister’s own hateful past, Johnny uncovers the details of the murder.
The Inside Man: When Johnny foresees the theft of a prized religious artifact on display at Faith Heritage, he infiltrates the band of masked robbers in order to save innocent lives.
Lotto Fever: Johnny is kidnapped by a “loser” convinced that the psychic ruined his life by helping him win the Lotto.
Symmetry: What happens when a psychic is attacked and his whole life flashes before his eyes? Would that also include the life of his attacker? And the life of the attacker’s innocent victim?
Vortex: Johnny is brought before a congressional panel, led by Greg Stillson, after infiltrating a cult to prevent a Waco-like catastrophe.
Revelations: The arrival of a mysterious young woman from Rev. Purdy’s past raises new questions for Johnny about the minister’s character.
Into the Heart of Darkness: Johnny and Walt must rescue a newly pregnant Sarah from the kidnapper known as the Collector, who has returned seeking revenge.
The Hunting Party: In the season finale, Johnny is witness to Janus’ secret plot to assassinate the Vice President in order to move Stillson one step closer to the White House.
Heritage: Johnny views visions of his friends in danger at a festival. He believes he has averted the disaster, but a fire later claims two people – changing Johnny’s life and the world’s fate.
Ego: Johnny butts heads with Anna Turner, the pompous new sheriff of Penobscot County and Walt’s replacement, skeptic to Johnny’s psychic powers. After having a vision about Sheriff Turner shooting an armed woman, Johnny begins investigating the woman. She turns out to be a psychiatrist with several patients who would like to see her dead. Meanwhile, Johnny tries to comfort Sarah in the wake of Walt’s death. He asks her and J.J. to move in with him, while he also learns that Sheriff Turner is investigating Walt for some past events.
Re-Entry: Johnny must try to set aside his personal distrust of Vice President Stillson in an effort to prevent a national disaster.
Big Top: Johnny’s visions inadvertently lead him to reexamine a ten-year-old murder case and his current relationship with his teenaged son, JJ.
Interred: When Johnny has disturbing visions of a man buried alive, he must overcome his differences with Sheriff Turner in the hopes of saving the man’s life.
Switch: After Johnny boards a train for some much-needed relaxation, he has a vision of a woman thrown to her death and soon falls for the intriguing beauty.
Numb: A serious case of appendicitis sends Johnny into another coma, and this time it’s up to Sarah to save his life.
Outcome: While at the bus station to greet Sara’s friend, Johnny has a vision of a mysterious explosion that kills everyone inside, and urgently races to discover the source, and prevent a tragedy.
Transgressions: Faith and truth collide as Johnny is thrust into a murder investigation of a young missing woman.
Drift: During a visit with Bruce, Johnny is struck with a vision of a valuable filly being stolen on the eve of a big horse race.
Exile: In jail for a crime he didn’t commit, Johnny risks everything to run from the law and try to prevent his psychic friend Alex Sinclair from being murdered.
Ambush: Johnny and Sheriff Turner’s lives are on the line as they pursue two separate criminal investigations that lead them both back to Walt.
Denouement: In the thrilling series finale, Johnny’s visions of Walt lead to a shocking discovery about Johnny’s dad as secrets from the past are revealed.