After last week's dismally derivative "The Sacrifice," the horror anthology series Fear Itself bounces back with a sophomore effort that is a refreshing change of pace. Far from your ordinary haunted house story, "Spooked" is a touching drama about a damaged man coming to terms with a tragedy in his past. Of course, as a sop to the show's presumptive fan base it has to couch its hard-won emotional revelations in supernatural terms, but it's no less effective for that.
Directed by Brad Anderson (heretofore, best known for romantic comedy/dramas like Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents and the Christian Bale weight-loss drama The Machinist), "Spooked" stars Eric Roberts as a rogue cop who routinely beats confessions out of suspects until one of them dies as a result of his overzealousness with a knife. (He never uses guns, for reasons that won't be made clear until the very end of the story.) "Sometimes you gotta do a wrong to make things right" is his motto, but that doesn't prevent him from getting kicked off the force. Fifteen years later he's an alcoholic private investigator, working the kinds of cases Jake Gittes would turn his nose up at when a mysterious woman asks him to get the goods on her philandering husband. The only catch is he'll have to set up shop in the long-abandoned house across the street from her place in order to do it undetected. It's there that Roberts has to face his personal demons once and for all.
If you, like me, only know Roberts as the idealistic hippie who, along with wacky sidekick Cheech Marin, goes into hiding for twenty years and gets blindsided by the yuppified '80s in the culture clash comedy Rude Awakening, his performance here will definitely be a revelation. Who knew Roberts had it in him to play a sleazy character with violent tendencies and a troubled past? He elevates the material, which plays like a kind of Rear Window/Blow Out smash-up at the start, but quickly deepens into something altogether more personal and profound. And Roberts isn't the only one who brings his A-game. He's easily matched by Lost star Cynthia Watros as the mysterious woman, whose cry of "He was my brother!" would have touched me even if she hadn't reached out and picked up a picture of her and her brother right afterwards. That simply pushed the moment over the top -- and brought the episode to a satisfying emotional climax.
After I was so dismissive of last week's installment, I was worried that Fear Itself was going to be 13 weeks of the same old, same old. Thanks to "Spooked," though, I feel that there is definitely more here than meets the eye.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. How the mighty have indeed fallen. Not only do I speak of Fear Itself, the once-sterling and now-sullied NBC horror anthology, but also of my esteemed colleague, Mr. Clark, whose good senses have apparently gone on some indefinite hiatus. After a rousing premiere episode, Breck Eisner's stunning "The Sacrifice," the series has descended, perhaps irrevocably, into dross with its second offering, the Brad Anderson-helmed "Spooked." In choosing to praise -- yes, gentle reader, PRAISE -- this lurid and needlessly unpleasant program, Mr. Clark does a disservice not only to his readership but to the very muses who provide our artistic inspiration and who must now be reeling from this unprovoked attack. (Weep not, gentle Calliope, for reparations are at hand. There, there, Melpomene. Chin up. Be brave. All will soon be righted.)
"Spooked" is nothing less than a cruel and elaborate fraud inflicted upon the American viewing public. My hopes for the episode, I must now admit, were quite high. I had heard, through my network of gossips, spies, and tattletales, that this episode was to feature the talents of one Ms. Julia Roberts, and I watched Mona Lisa Smile several times straight through in preparation. Alas, 'twas not to be. La Roberts was heartbreakingly absent, and in her stead through some nefarious act of network legerdemain was the similarly-surnamed-yet-in-no-other-way-similar Eric Roberts, he of Star 80 and Pope of Greenwich Village infamy. With his craggy, malformed face and sandpapery voice, Mr. Roberts delivered a "performance" (forgive me, O Terpsichore, for using this sacred term!) which assaulted both the eyes and ears, and since "Spooked" was virtually a one-man show, watching the program in its entirety was the equivalent of being locked in a highly-constrictive and evil-smelling supply closet with the man for a full hour's time. While an evening with Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain is undoubtedly a treat for audiences young and old alike, an evening with Eric Roberts is a torture test for only the most foolhardy of masochists.
Reader, I confess, I lacked the strength to endure such an onslaught and took shelter under a favorite damask duvet for the majority of "Spooked"'s running time, occasionally daring a furtive peek at the television screen in order to follow the dreadful machinations of the plot. I was able to intuit that the program took place mainly in some sort of charnel house in which Mr. Roberts, playing a detective, had found himself in the course of performing his professional duties. The rest of the program seemed to be a random assemblage -- a literal crazy quilt, if you will -- of brutish violence, ear-splitting noises, bad manners, and even vandalism. (In one of the program's more unsettling motifs, the walls of the aforementioned charnel house were shown to have been defaced by some deranged graffito. Hopefully, this will not spark a series of similar defacements by impressionable youngsters who happened to be watching.) Occasionally through the episode, I was relieved to hear the familiar theme to Howdy Doody, memorably sung to the tune of that great old English music hall standard "Ta Ra Ra Boom De Aye," but Anderson and Roberts managed to subvert even this delightful music by incorporating it into lurid flashback scenes of very poor taste.
Precious reader, know this: if "Spooked" is an indication of the direction Fear Itself is taking, I do not honestly know if my nervous system can withstand eleven more punishing weeks. But withstand them I must, if only to protect you from being misled by my Pied Piper-like colleague, Mr. Clark, who evidently intends to lure you down a dark and dangerous path with his deliberate and deceitful misrepresentation of the truth. Let us remain strong together then, you and I, and thus shall we survive the gauntlet of Fear Itself.