Friday, October 21, 2005

TV Review: Night Stalker: "Burning Man"

I've been a sort-of defender of the new Night Stalker TV series. For a couple of important reasons. One, I miss The X-Files. Two, I feel that the series is slowly but surely developing two neat and quasi-original ideas. Visually, the series is adroit in capturing the isolation and inhumanity/alienation of the modern "American City": lots of lights and whistles, but not much sense of community or humanity. I enjoy how we see the interludes of cars passing each other in the dark, under glaring yellow headlights and lamp posts, etcetera - all heading in different directions, with no sense of unity or group purpose. This element is basically an accent to the show, but one that is unique, I believe.

More importantly, I sense that the episodes are going in an interesting direction. Unlike the original Kolchak (which I love and adore to the high heavens and will be blogging here as soon as I get the DVD set...) or The X-Files, I feel like the "monsters" in the new Night Stalker arise primarily from the auspices of human sin: guilt, obsession, memory, you name it. Although the pilot episode featured "hell hounds," the remaining new stories have moved in an all-together different direction. This doesn't seem like a program where we're going to run into a "fluke man" or a "vampire" or "a Mummy." This terrain - human psychology creating "monsters" in a de-humanized 21st century metropolis - makes the program unique, and that's why I'm staying with it.

Yet, my sense of objectivity and candor forces me to admit that "Burning Man" - while adhering nicely to the principles I just laid out above - was not a particularly good show. The installment concerned a terrorist called "the TerrorMaker," who sends toxic figurines to people he deems responsible for creating biological weapons. The plot was interesting, to be sure, but ultimately I had seen this episode (and its thesis) before. In this story, we learn that the TerrorMaker really is dead, and that it was the investigating officer in the FBI who is continuing his spree of crimes because he got too far "inside" the terrorist's head while profiling him. A third season episode of The X-Files, entitled "Grotesque," presented the same story a decade ago; and did so in superior fashion.

Unlike last week's denouement ("Three"), which I thought was superbly rendered and even surprising, I knew all along where this episode was heading, and that took some of the enjoyment out of it. And that was a disappointing development. There are no original stories, people always say, and I guess you could use this episode as proof of that theorem.

And yet - again - there was the kernel of an interesting idea here. One that really had nothing at all to do with the central plot. Let me explain. Night Stalker focuses on journalists; on reporters for a major metropolitan newspaper, and well, they're in a profession that's under some pretty intense scrutiny right now. In "Burning Man," a high-powered, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter of great stature named Howard Gorn (love that name...) basically peddles a false story for his "exclusive" access to FBI sources. He knows his story is composed of bald-faced lies; the paper knows the stories are a lie too, and yet they are printed and circulated anyway, without skepticism. Sound familiar?

This situation is a metaphor, I believe, for New York Times reporter Judith Miller selling the Iraq War and the non-existent WMD threat to the American people, in exchange for access to powerful folks like Scooter Libby. And when it finally came time to pay the piper and to tell the truth about her sources, what did Miller do? Allegedly, she copped out (under oath) and said she "couldn't recall" who gave her the information that ultimately did great damage, outing a covert CIA Agent and garnering support for a threat that didn't really exist. She went to jail claiming to protect her sources, but in fact, by my way of thinking, she hid only her culpability in a possible criminal conspiracy. Her immoral behavior is a stain on the profession of journalism, and the credibility of her paper, the New York Times. In a tender-footed, awkward way, "Burning Man" addresses these points about the profession of journalism, and I was happy to see this element of subtext on a show that otherwise felt overly-familiar.

It strikes me as interesting that Night Stalker and the original Kolchak series both arose out of critical junctures in the history of American journalism.

The original Kolchak, starring Darren McGavin, arrived on TV (as a series) in 1974, after Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein investigated Watergate and were seen by the public as "crusaders" who would speak truth to power and see to it that the American people knew what was really going on with their government. Kolchak - like these real-life investigative reporters - represented the Everyman fighting the giant bureaucracy of Washington D.C., or rather, "City Hall."

Kolchak was ignored, shunted aside, and dismissed, but goddamit, he was going to get his story and he was going to tell people what was really going on around them. In this case, it was that the streets and halls of power were literally filled with monsters (like werewolves, Succubi and even Helen of Troy). This is particularly relevant since many in the media at the time spoke of Nixon's White House in supernatural/horror movie terminology. As Ron Rosenbaum wrote in Harper's Magazine at the end of the decade, the White House was seen as "haunted" by Alexander Haig's "sinister outside force." John Mitchell spoke of "White House Horrors." Howard Hunt described "spooks." The list of illegal campaign contributions maintained by the President's secretary was referred to as "Rosemary's Baby." A horror TV program - Kolchak: the Night Stalker - literalized the "horrors" of a malevolent White House working against the people to hold onto power.

The new Night Stalker arrives in the very different world of the 21st century, one wherein we don't really trust the media anymore. Another scandal like Watergate, this time the CIA Leak Probe, threatens to bring down another Republican President in his second term. Only this time, journalists like Judith Miller have been found complicit in the lies that spawned the crisis.

They made Faustian (another horror term!) deals with powerful politicians, but did not fight to share the truth with us. Miller is not a crusader, but rather a collaborator, and so, like the fictional Howard Gorn, is ultimately matter how many six figure book deals she acquires. But Gorn could be any celebrity journalist who has sold out to this corrupt White House. Like Robert Novak, for instance, who pridefully describes himself in horror terminology as "The Prince of Darkness," and who attempted to destroy an individual who dare speak against "the War President."

And interestingly, why may this President ultimately fall ? Hubris, I would say...a very human (and tragic...) sin, the very "something" that makes monsters on the 2005 Night Stalker.

So I'm perfectly willing to admit that some episodes of Night Stalker just don't feel very fresh. "Malum" is the weakest of the lot since the pilot, I'd say. But even if stories such as "Burning Man" are predictable or somehow underwhelming, I ask you - the viewer - to consider the greater world of the new Night Stalker. It speaks directly and clearly to the issues of our time, to the Zeitgeist of now. Yes, the series needs to land quickly on more concrete narrative footing, yet I am sticking with this program for the overall vibe and atmosphere.

It is fascinating, the dehumanizing and transparent glass world of Night Stalker, one where human sin creates threatening monsters, and where journalists sell their souls to the demonic Karl Roves of the worlds...

So kudos to the new Night Stalker for having the balls to wade - even ham-handedly - into this debate about journalism and politics, and to ask pertinent and meaningful questions about the so-called standards of our society's "truth seekers."

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