Imaginary friends of children have always been an object of fascination for us. We can give any number of psychological reasons for why and when children are most likely to have them, but there’s always that tiny doubt at the back of our minds: What if they’re something more than just figments of imagination?
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The idea that children in their wide-eyed innocence could see or know something more than the jaded teenagers and the cynical adults they turn into is frightening … but also intriguing.
ABC’s “The Whispers,” which premiered June 1, presents this familiar plot line to us with a new twist. It leans more toward complicated tech-y science fiction than, say, the paranormal, saccharine campiness of “Ghost Whisperer.” Set against a suburban backdrop of baseball games and bubble blowing in backyards, “The Whispers” follows the children in the outskirts of D.C. talking to people — or things, as we’re gradually led to believe — that aren’t there. Their parents are ready to dismiss this as normal age-appropriate behavior, until the “friend” convinces these children to play a game, which always turns out to be dangerous — especially for adults. It involves activities like creating and detonating a bomb and rigging a treehouse so a mother falls to her death, while her daughter looks down through the jagged wooden planks at her, calling, “You can stop playing the game now.”
Lily Rabe (“American Horror Story”) gives a believable, if at times muted, performance as Claire Bennigan, an FBI agent returning to the workplace and a mother to a young deaf son. Rabe’s own skill in creating a nuanced but realistic rapport with the children she’s questioning is complemented by the young actors of the show, notably Abby Fortson as Harper — the young girl who watched her mother fall through the treehouse floor. The most captivating part of “X Marks the Spot” is, by far, watching the children, who all seem to know the same imaginary friend named Drill. He speaks sometimes through the lights and other electrical appliances.
The other adult actors are less lucky than Rabe. The dialogue they’re given to work with usually falls flat due to the half-hearted expository writing and predictably mundane complaints about home, work and marital problems.
The writers tried to do too much in the single episode, but it held together anyway. Though the children and their imaginary, insidious friend could have been intriguing enough to carry the show, the writers threw in some more sci-fi stuff that doesn’t really mesh easily and naturally with the imaginary friend plot. There’s a creepy guy who always manages to show up whenever a child is playing the “game” — until he passes out unexpectedly and wakes up in a hospital bed, staring dazedly at his own tattoos — and there’s something weird going on in the Sahara Desert with rocks and electricity. Oh, and of course there’s some government conspiracy afoot somewhere.
“The Whispers” has its entire season ahead of it to develop the storylines and blend them together — but the pilot was too much, too fast. If that was supposed to keep us watching, it may have done so for some viewers. But most will approach the following episodes with considerably more skepticism and higher standards.