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October 10, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»x_files

Television Week, Part 2: Strange Chemistry*

Night Stalker is one of those shows I wouldn't have ever watched if it weren't for TiVo. Its run on broadcast TV was vindictively short, its rebroadcast on SciFi is at a timeslot that I'll never be capable of viewing, and its DVDs pale in priority compared to other series I still want to watch (Six Feet Under, for example). Ah, but TiVo'd Night Stalker fills a lag between Netflix disks regardless of my schedule--and with only about nine episodes ever made, it's not going to tie up my life, either.

The show is a remake of the 1970's movie and series Kolchak: The Night Stalker, starring Darrin McGavin, who might be a little better known as the Old Man from A Christmas Story. He was a middle-aged, washed-up newspaper hack who didn't let the supernatural interrupt his snappy delivery: "I promised I'd show up with a haircut, a new hat, and pressed suit... but I lie a lot." For the new show, they kept the journalist, the mustang he drives, a few of the character names, and that's about it. The new Kolchak is young, played by Stuart Townsend, smug, and hunting down a string of supernatural murders as a crime reporter in Los Angeles. The deaths are interrelated, with some kind of internal mythology involving Kolchak's murdered wife and post-mortem markings on their wrists.

If it sounds a little X-Filesish for your tastes, that's because it is. According to IMDB, the head writer and producer of the show, Frank Spotnitz, was closely involved with Mulder and Scully's exploits and scripted a lot of their conspiracy episodes. The writers on the X-Files were reportedly big fans of the original Kolchak, hence the remake, but Night Stalker fails to live up to either of its precursors.

In all honesty, it's not a bad show. The portrayal of journalism, even crime journalism, is bizarre but acceptable for dramatic purposes. The mythology is a little weak, but it could have developed, and some of the monsters-of-the-week are well-done. Mythology is overrated anyway: Lost exists in large part for its bizarre conspiracy theories, which are rapidly spiraling out of control. Although The X-Files also had its increasingly nebulous and unbelievable backstory (to list a few: alien abductions, Mulder's sister, alien/human hybrids that are killed with an icepick to the neck, the black alien oil, Tunguska experiments, genetically engineered bees, clones of Mulder's sister, the Smoking Man, Scully's baby, plans to evacuate NWO executives before the aliens attack, smallpox scars, Mulder's father, and so on...), those threads were tied more closely together, instead of overwhelming it with surrealism. Besides, I would argue that this is not the legacy that later shows have fallen short. Where Night Stalker fails is its lack of chemistry.

The original show, by all accounts, was enjoyable in large part because of the interplay between Kolchak and his editor, each of which loathed the other. Kolchak himself was part earnest reporter, but also part unrepentant sleazebag, and the police treated him as such. Likewise, the X-Files may have had its share of mysteries, but the chemistry between Mulder and Scully--that will-they-won't-they question at the heart of every show--was what really drove it forward. The show began to droop once the romance was made explicit, and quietly died when Duchovny left and was replaced by the decidedly less romantic Robert Patrick.

The new Night Stalker has elements in place for its own mutual attraction--Townsend is not completely charming, but he makes a passable leading man, and his fellow crime reporter Perri Reed (played by Gabrielle Union) is very cute despite her tendency to play second fiddle. Frankly, she'd make a better main character. Within the episodes produced, however, the interaction between the two is generally limited to Kolchak producing a wild story supported by an anonymous source, and Reed lecturing him on journalistic ethics. It's possible that there were plans for more personal character exploration later, or that they were worried about being seen as too much Newspaper X-Files, but without that core the show just isn't very compelling.

* Yes, I am going to use one of my song titles for this post. Ego 1, Taste 0!

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