The Night Stalker: “Pilot”

The X-Files, v. 2.0

by Sarah Stegall

Series: The Night Stalker

ABC, Thursdays, 9/8 Central

Well, this is a surprise. I assumed ABC’s new “Night Stalker” would be a tired retread of that 70s show, “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”, complete with god-awful stuntmen-in-rubber-suit monsters and cackling one liners. I assumed I would hate it, sight unseen. Instead, I find myself a surprised fan of the show. Let me say right out front that I was never a fan of the 70s version of “Night Stalker”, and while I admire Darren McGavin (the original Carl Kolchak) there’s no getting around the fact that the character was written as a cartoon. I saw the original series, complete with headless knights on motorcycles and ten-foot Aztec gods–I do not have fond memories of it. Be warned, if you came to this series expecting a reverent resurrection of that show, you’re going to be disappointed. This is not your father’s “Kolchak”.

Stuart Townsend (“Queen of the Damned”) is ABC’s new incarnation of Carl Kolchak, and thankfully he is no cartoon. His Kolchak is a broken-hearted widower who suspects supernatural forces at work in his wife’s murder and has come to Los Angeles in pursuit of answers. He’s very serious about his work–too serious, sometimes. In the Pilot, Kolchak is closed off, distant: he dismisses his colleagues on the paper, his aloofness translates (to them) as arrogance, his confidence as stubborness. Yet at the same time, Townsend shows us the vulnerable man behind that facade, in small asides, in the voice – overs (yes, there are voice-overs — live with it), in his brooding all-night drives around midnight LA. Townsend is a seasoned young actor with a respectable resume, and sells the character convincingly. I believe in this Carl Kolchak. He is not the scruffy Carl Kolchak of 1974, with stained tie and porkpie hat–he’s a man who lives in this century, a darker century. He neither grimaces nor capers, but exudes the dark, brooding angst of the new millenium.

Gratefully, we are spared another Simon Oakland and his bellowing editor, constantly chewing out Kolchak. This time around we have a more believable and compassionate Tony Vincenzo (Cotter Smith) acting as editor and gadfly to Kolchak. Instead of pointless screaming matches, we get war stories delivered in the quiet of early morning LA by a stern yet fair mentor. The producers (Executive Producer Frank Spotnitz is a veteran of “The X-Files”) also spare us the rubber-suited monsters, always one of the weakest points of the original show. “Night Stalker’s” monsters are glimpsed, or hinted at, or seen as menacing shadows (the hanged man in the third episode was particularly good), but seldom thrown violently into our faces. I appreciate a return of subtlety to prime time television.

Some of this mix has not yet gelled. Kolchak has a female partner now, Perri Reed (Gabrielle Union), who has yet to develop her character beyond two dimensions of a) opposition and b) disbelief. Photographer Jain McManus (Eric Jungmann) rounds out the cast, as a wide-eyed newbie who, so far, exists only to ask the questions that Kolchak answers in order to advance the plot. There have been scenes where the acting is flat, the dialogue stilted, the direction opaque. The premises of the stories sometimes do not bear close examination: werewolves I can probably accept, but people literally scared to death? Bones that get broken because people are convinced they are falling 50 stories? Please. If the writers are smart, they’ll keep the “explanations” to a minimum and let our imaginations fill in the gaps. All these stumbling blocks were evident in the first five or six episodes of “The X-Files”; I expect the producers to iron them out as the series progresses. They have won my respect so far with high production values, intriguing characters, and acceptable storylines.

There are, this year, half a dozen good horror/SF shows on television, but so far none of them are as pretty to watch as “Night Stalker”. Here’s the breathing darkness John Bartley once brought to “The X-Files”. Here’s the sickly green neon glare of late-night Lost Angeles, glowing like the bioluminescence of decay. Here’s the stylishly self-conscious voice-overs, graphics (words actually float around the screen, echoing the voice-over), and haunting music that take us out of the pedestrian slasher genre that birthed “Kolchak” and into an edgier, hipper, darker present. This “Night Stalker” owes more to MTV than to the garish 70s show it is named after. This is a lonely, alienated world; most scenes are empty, night-haunted, menacing. Kolchak is frequently alone, or with just a few companions, as he stalks the night. Spotnitz et al invest not just Kolchak, but Los Angeles itself with an aura of reckless peril, with a sense of having staked all on a quest that may prove dangerous in ways we cannot yet know.

I am seeing a host of familiar names in the credits. Besides Spotnitz, I see directors and writers like Daniel Sackheim and Darin Morgan. These veterans of “The X-Files” will bring with them a solid history of spooky, atmospheric, and most of all intelligent television. So far they’ve made a good start at a show that reminds me of when television was written for grownups. They’ve got the look and the style; now they need the stories. I have faith.

I have missed “The X-Files”. It’s good to have part of them back.