Finding a moral compass amid the paranormal

Now that "The X-Files" is gone from TV for good, connoisseurs of speculative fiction must look elsewhere for their thrills and chills. And The Dead Zone, starring Anthony Michael Hall (Sundays on USA, 10-11 p.m., beginning June 16) is a good place to start.

It's not science fiction, but it's about a hero's journey through the weird and the wondrous.

The characters are based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King. The hero, Johnny, is a good man driven into a self-sacrificing role partly by chance and partly because his noble spirit can't help but do right.

An ordinary guy who loves his childhood sweetheart and teaches high school, Johnny finds himself burdened with an extraordinary ability to see into the future – and even the dangerous present.

After a severe car accident, he awakens from a six-year coma to find that his "dead zone," an area of the brain not normally used, has miraculously become active. He warns his nurse that her young daughter is in danger – a gas explosion has knocked out the baby sitter. The nurse saves her daughter in the nick of time.

When his childhood love, Sara, visits him after he awakens, he "sees" her life circumstances: She has a new husband who has been raising Johnny's child as if he were his own. Through his clairvoyance, he later saves another nurse from a serial murderer.

The fantastic premise, like so much of speculative fiction, is meant to suggest there is more to human experience than science can explain.

Much of the genre, including this series, really represents a reaction to "scientism," or science as gospel. But what is affecting about the approach of "The Dead Zone" is that Johnny is not a macho gun-toting hero who solves violence with violence. Mr. Hall plays him as a strong but kind and perceptive man who is drawn against his will into the service of others.

The story is character-driven, says executive producer Michael Piller. "This is really about a man's spiritual journey.... We felt that 'The Dead Zone,' even with its title, would be an antidote to the dark genre pieces that have been turning audiences off for the past decade.

"One of the things we've found is that the approach we've taken has a very broad appeal – to both men and women."

Mr. Piller says he hopes to convince people to watch the show with loved ones because it addresses fundamental quality-of-life issues. There also is a strong romantic – though platonic – central theme to the story.

"I believe this is more than a science-fiction piece," Piller continues. "It's a drama that happens to have a paranormal hero. We're not sticking to the kind of storytelling we saw on 'Millennium' or 'Profiler.' We're trying to explore the breadth of human experience. I think Stephen King was particularly interested in the spiritual life Americans live."

Hall, who began his career playing an adorable teenager in the movies "The Breakfast Club" and "16 Candles," and recently played Bill Gates in TNT's "The Pirates of Silicon Valley," says the spiritual dimension of the story matters very much to him.

"I'm approaching the role in a threefold way," he says. "It's certainly a physical challenge – a process of discovery – how to wake up [from the coma], how to find a way in and out of these visions.

"It's certainly cerebral. I have to really think about the transitions in these episodes – really keep on top of the script. But at the same time, it's spiritual, because he puts his ability to good use as he really does try to effect change."

Hall draws upon his own religious practice for insight into his character. He prays before each scene. "It means that much to me," he says. "The character has a moral compass."

* * * *

Director Michel Apted has produced some excellent mainstream American movies ("Coal Miner's Daughter," "Gorillas In the Mist"). But the Briton began his career with the ground-breaking documentary series "7 Up," which looked at 7-year-old children from a crosssection of British society. He has revisited them every seven years, producing one of the most insightful documentary series ever made.

Now Mr. Apted brings his extraordinary abilities to another documentary project: Married in America (the first two hours air June 17 on A&E, 9-11 p.m., followed by the third hour on June 20, 10-11 p.m.). Planned as a decade-long examination of marriage, the film begins with nine couples on the verge of wedded bliss. He will visit each couple every two years.

There is no doubt that marriage is good for the health and well-being of its adherents. But Apted asks: What makes a good marriage today?

To answer that question, he interviews biracial, bicultural, same sex, and traditional couples from a variety of social and economic backgrounds. In all these relationships, the couples treat each other as equals. They all seem sincere, if not very thoughtful, about what they think marriage means.

We can't help but hoping all of them will succeed. But the question of how the scrutiny of Apted's camera will affect these couples is still open.

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