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Night Stalker – Three (Review)

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

Three is an interesting episode of Night Stalker, representing a threat that certainly feels less generic than that proposed by episodes like The Five People You Meet in Hell or Burning Man.

Three is the story of a house that is haunted by “the ghost of an emotion.” Given the fact that this is very much a horror show, and the themes already outlined in The Pilot and The Five People You Meet in Hell, it makes sense that the emotion in question is “fear.” Opening with a hazing ritual conducted by a secret society inside a derelict house, Three confronts the guest characters with their greatest fears. It is a very direct way addressing the underlying themes of Night Stalker, the fear and disconnect of modern urban living.

Top of the world...

Top of the world…

However, despite a good premise and solid execution, Three demonstrates the difficulties that Night Stalker is having finding its own unique voice. Three makes a conscious effort to flesh out its main characters, giving its central players personal conversations and introducing a new recurring character to help Kolchak in his investigations. However, this focus on character only emphasises how generic the show’s ensemble is. It is unfair to blame the cast and crew for something as intangible as the lack of chemistry, but it remains an issue for the series.

Three gives Stuart Townsend and Gabrielle Union banter, but it only serves to demonstrate that they lack the palpable chemistry that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson had. The script slots Jain into the role of comic relief, but this raises questions about what exactly his function in all of this is meant to be. The central characters seem lost in the episode’s shuffle, with Three demonstrating that a solid monster-of-the-week can only really succeed when built on a firm foundation.

Hide and seek...

Hide and seek…

In its defense, the episode tries really hard to figure out how these characters are supposed to relate to one another. A lot of these problems are inherited from The Pilot; Kolchak and Reed are the show’s two central characters, but they already seem like two broadly-drawn archetypes rather than nuanced and developed human beings. Kolchak is the believer with a deep personal investment in proving the existence of the paranormal and explaining his own trauma; Reed is the more rational partner drawn into this crazy world.

These are familiar archetypes, and for good reason. The “believer/skeptic” dynamic is a convenient source of conflict on a show like this. It can provide writers and actors with a lot of good material. If ever a script starts to lag, throwing in a quick one-liner about how arbitrary Reed’s skepticism is or how crazy Kolchak’s open-mindedness is will put everything back on course. Three employs this quite a bit, acknowledging how generic the set-up is by allowing Kolchak and Reed to role-play as each other to the bemusement of surrounding characters.

Eye see...

Eye see…

There is just one problem with all this. For modern television audiences, the “believer/skeptic” dynamic has never been done better than the Mulder and Scully dynamic on The X-Files. While the show might have burnt slowly out of the public consciousness in its final four seasons, there was a moment in the late nineties when Mulder and Scully were ubiquitous. They were archetypes unto themselves. The “believer/skeptic” dynamic could just as easily be called the “Mulder/Scully” dynamic, as it conjures the same images.

This makes evoking that dynamic risky for Night Stalker, particularly given that Frank Spotnitz’s long history with The X-Files is going to invite those comparisons as a matter of course. If a show is going to trade on these associations, then it needs a compelling central dynamic. The problem with Night Stalker is that Kolchak and Reed are nowhere near as interesting as Mulder and Scully, lacking the instant chemistry that was on show from the moment that Mulder and Scully met one another in The Pilot.

"Trust me. I've watched The X-Files. I'm always going to be right."

“Trust me. I’ve watched The X-Files. I’m always going to be right.”

It is unreasonable to insist that Stuart Townsend and Gabrielle Union should instantly share the same chemistry as Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny. That is a phenomenal television pairing, one that deserves to be ranked alongside Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. However, the scripting for Three seems to pale into the comparison, offering the duo lines and exchanges that feel like they were written for two generic leads. These sequences do not play to the strengths of the performers.

During the investigation, Kolchak gets a number of one-liners that might easily have been given to Mulder during the early years of The X-Files. This does Townsend no favours, as he lacks the sort of deadpan delivery that made Duchovny’s performance so effective. It is hard not hear Townsend deliver the line “so, setting aside what an honours student is doing in this house, it’s a simple case of homicide – only it isn’t” without imagining Duchovny uttering the line as Mulder prepares Scully for his crazy theory.

Bus-ted...

Bus-ted…

Townsend lacks Duschovny’s skill for banter, which becomes quite clear later in the episode. Three features Kolchak and Reed conversing casually in a car; it is a stock television trope, but given the larger similarities between Night Stalker and The X-Files coupled with the emphasis Three places on the dynamic between Kolchak and Reed, it feels like another attempt to shoehorn Kolchak and Reed into shallow copies of Mulder and Scully. There is one small problem. While Townsend has an intensity that works well with Kolchak’s persona, he is less suited to flirty banter.

The conversation reveals that Reed may or may not have been a member of a secret college society. This explains why she would be interested in the eponymous society. It might also serve as a window into her character, especially in contrast with Kolchak. Night Stalker suggests that Kolchak has alienated almost everybody in his life, so stressing Reed’s ability to network makes for an effective point of comparison. However, the exchange goes on too long and feels too forced; more than that, it feels like something that it might be fun to play with, but which is soon forgotten.

Just the ticket...

Just the ticket…

Similarly, Three pushes Reed firmly into the role of “skeptic” in the dynamic. The script offers Reed arguments that might have been ported over from Scully. (Union herself described Reed as “the Scully.”) As the duo investigate the case of a young woman who drowned on dry land, Reed proposes “dry drowning”, arguing that this might explain “how she could have drowned, but had no water in her lungs.” This feels like a very early X-Files script, with the skeptic making arguments that reasonably fit the facts of the case and frame those facts in rational terms.

The problem is that all of this has been done before. Scully was a character who struggled against the weight of being a skeptic in a world populated with paranormal phenomenon. Eventually, The X-Files embraced that Scully’s skepticism was not sustainable, that it was turning the character into something of a pop culture punchline. It took seven years, but Scully eventually came to accept the supernatural. Having worked on The X-Files, it seems like Frank Spotnitz should be more wary of repeating the same mistakes with Reed.

An axe to grind...

An axe to grind…

If Three suggests that Kolchak and Reed are just updated versions of Mulder and Scully, the episode struggles with the rest of the supporting cast. In particular, the character of Jain seems rather generic. Part of this is down to the fact that Eric Jungmann is not the strongest member of the ensemble. However, a lot of this is down to the simple fact that Jain is a third wheel on a two-hander. Kolchak and Reed render Jain largely redundant from a storytelling or dramatic perspective. Kolchak even takes his own photos.

Three struggles about what to do with Jain. During the initial investigation scenes, Jain gets to say insightful things like “for real?” and “ah… man!” He is also awkwardly shoehorned into the role of stock comic relief, incorrectly answering “urine” when Kolchak asks what the team smells in the abandoned house. (It turns out that the correct answer is “incense.”) Jain feels very much like a character whose presence takes away from Kolchak and Reed. Like Vincienzo, it seems that Jain does not need to be a member of the regular cast; he might work best recurring.

Lighting the way...

Lighting the way…

Jain is the kind of supporting character who clutters up network procedurals. Three introduces another such character in Alex Nyby, the “pathology specialist” who appears in four of the show’s ten episodes. Nyby is also intended as comic relief; it seems strange to have two characters filling that role on what is supposed to be a horror show. Nyby feels like another example of how Night Stalker is being nudged closer and closer to the stock procedural model. He is a take on the “quirky coroner” character that populates the various CSI shows and imitators.

It is a shame that so many of these background elements feel rather generic and bland. Three is a surprisingly effective supernatural procedural. It is certainly more effective as a horror story than either The Five People You Meet in Hell or Burning Man. The story centres upon “some super secret fraternity hazing gone wrong”, a college society ritual that ends in mysterious death. It is not a bad hook for a story. In fact, a huge proportion of the horror genre is rooted in the idea of teenagers meddling with large and ominous forces; Three plays into that.

Hang tough.

Hang tough.

In some ways, the basic plot of Three seems to push Night Stalker outside Los Angeles. Secret college societies are traditionally associated with East Coat institutions. Stanford University has no truly notable secret society, certainly not one that could compare with the Skull and Bones or the Sphinx. While Berkeley University has its own mysterious “Order of the Golden Bear”, it is not a secret society in the traditional sense of the word. So setting a story about a secret society in Los Angeles feels like a strange choice for a show so rooted in the city.

Of course, there are other reasons why Three would be so fascinated with the idea of a secret college institution. George W. Bush’s membership of the Skull and Bones at Yale had become an object of minor media fascination during his first presidential bid at the turn of the millennium. Bush was far from the first member of a secret society to become President of the United States, but it was an interesting angle on his election narrative. During the 2004 election campaign, it emerged that both George W. Bush and John Kerry had been Skull and Bones members.

Shadowplay...

Shadowplay…

As such, it makes sense for Night Stalker to turns its focus to college secret societies. The show is quite preoccupied with the politics and cultural markers of the Bush era. This is perhaps most obvious in Burning Man, bleeding through from the primary plot into the show’s engagement with journalism as a profession. However, the show’s fascination with the idea of fear and that fear resonates with every day life, allows the show to feel like a broader meditation on the politics of the War on Terror.

It has been argued that the War on Terror served to create “a culture of fear in America.” Even though the material threat of violent crime has decreased since the mid-nineties, fear of crime only rose into the twenty-first century. It has been argued that this broader culture of fear has been used by politicians and interest groups to cement their hold upon contemporary society. Three features a secret society that uses fear in such a way; it convinces the initiates to face their worst fears, using that fear to create a strong bond.

The darkness in the centre of town...

The darkness in the centre of town…

It should be noted that the actual plotting of Three is a little hazy in places. It seems hard to imagine how the eponymous society is actually supposed to work. In Three, Kolchak and Reed only encounter four members of this highly elitist organisation and the organisation itself seems curiously uninterested in the mysterious deaths of two of its three new initiates and one of its long-standing members. It seems like the kind of thing with which a secret society of power-brokers might want to engage, given the importance of myth-making to such societies.

The focus on a collegiate secret society does feel more like an East Coast story than a tale suited to Night Stalker‘s Los Angeles aesthetic. However, Three carefully frames the finer details of that story in terms that relate to the city itself. The teaser touches on some of the more awkward racial politics of Los Angeles, the anxiety around race and class conflict within the city. Three is framed as the story of three white college kids who wander into a decaying part of Los Angeles and find themselves confronted with untold horrors.

Ticket to ride...

Ticket to ride…

There is something just a little uncomfortable with all this, with the way that the teaser seems to racially codify its sense of threat. When Kolchak’s narration talks about “primal responses to threat”, the episode offers glimpses of people of colour living in under-resourced parts of the city. The opening scene features a white woman on a bus with the camera focusing on her African American fellow passengers. As she journeys to the dilapidated house, a low-rider passes populated by latinos, with music blaring out.

To be fair, Three makes it perfectly clear that the three white college kids are not the victim of violence from any member of any minority. “There is no place to run when the dangers come not from outside us, but from ourselves,” Kolchak narrates during the teaser, and the climax features the horrifying disintegration of a white family unit. Still, there is a sense that Three is treating Los Angeles’ racial diversity as inherently “other”, even if the script does not address the issue directly.

Father figure...

Father figure…

There is a sense that Three is touching upon these issues of racial and class divide in Los Angeles. Kolchak and Reed never talk about it directly, but the script puts a lot of emphasis on the journey by these white college students to a lower-class neighbourhood populated by a more diverse group of people. Kolchak talks about how Jack Mercer’s father moved to a “poor neighbourhood, but a big house”; as if stressing the class tensions that exist. Similarly, Kolchak’s final monologue mentions the fears “residing not just in our hearts, but in the hidden bonds between us.”

(Even the decision to burn down the house at the end of Three seems to nod towards such a reading of the episode. The 1992 Los Angeles riots saw more than 3,000 fires set within the city. Without police resources to protect the city’s fire department, many of these fires were allowed to burn unattended. Many of the iconic images of the riots focus on those flames, as if to suggest that the entire city was burning. As such, the closing images of Three bring the story back around to subtle invocations of the city’s own racial and social tensions.)

Reflections...

Reflections…

These are very slight nods towards the underlying anxieties around class and race that tend to percolate through stories set in Los Angeles. Three is populated with a reasonably diverse cast of characters; Reed and Nyby are African American, while Richard Carr is latino. However, the story is told from a very white and very middle-class perspective. As such, this makes any attempt of the show’s attempts to engage with fears about race and identity in Los Angeles seem a little awkward.

In a way, this seems very much like an issue that Night Stalker has inherited from The X-Files and Millennium. Both of those shows were very firmly rooted in a white middle-class worldview. On The X-Files, other cultures were frequently portrayed as “other” or “alien” in stories like Teso Dos Bichos or El Mundo Gira. On Millennium, contemporary anxieties seemed to centre around defending the suburban family home against perceived outside threats. There was not a lot of diversity in perspective when it came to storytelling on those shows.

Apt pupil...

Apt pupil…

Night Stalker is very much a spiritual successor to those shows. Indeed, given ABC’s reluctance to feature actual monsters, Night Stalker has a lot in common with Millennium. However, it feels like the show has not moved with the times. At the start of the twenty-first century, diversity in film and television was becoming a much larger issue. While The X-Files and Millennium had (for better or worse) been products of their time, Night Stalker felt faintly outdated. As time marched on, an unwillingness to engage with a broader perspective becomes harder to forgive.

Still, these issues aside, Three is a relatively solid piece of horror television. The idea of a house haunted by the ghost of an emotion is a nice hook. The idea of characters killed by their own fear plays into the same sort of allegorical and metaphorical storytelling model that Spotnitz established in The Pilot. Although Daniel Sackheim might not be the most innovative or dynamic of directors, Three looks very good. In particularly, the use of light sources in the memorial scene is a nice showcase of the digital platform.

Memories are made of this...

Memories are made of this…

Three is not great television. It is not even particularly good television. However, it is only the third episode of a new television series. Night Stalker is still working out what it is and what it might want to be. Three suggests that the production team are struggling with defining their cast and are leaning a little too heavily into the safe and the familiar. Still, there is potential here. There is just work to be done on figuring out how best to capitalise on that.

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