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The Dead Zone: Wheel of Fortune

Bruce: "Nice family."
Johnny: "Yeah. Somebody else's."

Very, very good.

Anthony Michael Hall is a surprisingly good choice for John Smith. He is a strong, talented actor; he looked so different than he did as a teen movie star that I didn't realize at first that it was the same person. Hall is so good that we can immediately identify with Johnny, who has lost absolutely everything. This sort of connection is vital, especially in a television pilot.

Nicole de Boer was equally wonderful as Sarah. She had several strong scenes; I particularly liked the one in the car where she was trying to compose herself and put on makeup before seeing Johnny again. The scene with the two of them on the hospital grounds was particularly powerful. Johnny already knew the answer when he asked her if she had a family; having him see her in her own kitchen with her husband and son as she replied was just marvelous writing. The subtle way she told Johnny that he had a son was poignant. It made us feel such empathy for him and sympathy for Sarah, as well. Michael Hall was particularly impressive in this scene, especially at the end.

Another scene that just blew me away was Dr. Tran reuniting with his mother. There were no words in the scene (only moving piano music) because words were not needed; the emotion on their faces said it all. It made chills go down my spine and brought me to tears.

Although it wasn't stated, it was clear to me that Johnny finally woke up because of Elaine's daughter. If not, it would simply be too big a coincidence, him having his first vision of a major, catastrophic event at the moment he awoke. Although the accident brought his "gift" to the surface, there were three signs that Johnny was already mildly psychic before the coma: (1) the hockey scene in 1976 when Johnny knew the ice would break; (2) Johnny's mother saying he could always find things; and (3) his run of luck on the wheel of fortune, the night of the accident.

Johnny's visions were dramatic and effective, and had an eerie emotional impact. They beautifully complemented the story instead of overpowering it, which is just what a special effect should do. I particularly liked the dead stops, with Johnny walking around observing details of the vision.

This first episode was faithful to the original book by Stephen King as well as wonderful on its own. I was impressed with how series creators Michael and Shawn Piller retained the best parts of King's book, while making sound decisions about what to change in order to make a series work better. They of course retained the major plot points: Johnny's coma and his awakening, his visions, and Sarah's marriage to another man during Johnny's coma.

But the series differs from the book in several ways. In the book, Sarah had a child with her husband. Here, Sarah's child is Johnny's; they conceived him right before Johnny's accident. This was a good dramatic choice because it keeps Sarah and Johnny connected and ties Johnny more strongly to the real world (in the book, he was too alienated). Plus, here Sarah is married to Sheriff Walt Bannerman, instead of to a minor character; this was also a good dramatic choice, since a genuine psychic would logically end up working with the police – as Johnny indeed does with Walt in future episodes.

The other major changes include: in the book, Johnny's father is alive, and his mother is a poor religious loony who dies after Johnny wakes up. Here, Johnny's father is dead and his mother is a rich religious philanthropist who dies during his coma. Johnny was poor in the book but well off here, a good choice because it makes his character more autonomous. He's free to recover from his injuries with excellent health care, and to explore his gift without worrying about supporting himself. He gets to wear nice clothes, too.

Lots of bits and pieces:

— The intro is different from what it becomes later; it's very movie-like, with credits shown over the childhood hockey game. (Probably because they didn't know at first if the series would be picked up, and if it hadn't, it would have been sold as a movie.)

— The Reverend Purdy, head of the "Faith Heritage Alliance," isn't in the book at all. Here, Purdy is an enigma; we don't really know what sort of person he is, what his motivations are, how he truly feels about Johnny. Pre-coma, Johnny thought Purdy was "soaking" Johnny's mother Vera for money, and post-coma, we saw that Purdy certainly did get control of Vera's money after Johnny's accident and Vera's death.

— According to the DVD commentary and extras, Michael Moriarity originally played Reverend Purdy. Scenes with Purdy were later re-shot with David Ogden Stiers in the role. After seeing the unaired pilot with Moriarity, I think Stiers is better suited for the part.

— Johnny is disabled, possibly permanently, from the effects of the coma, but not as severely as he was in the book.

— The understated piano music as Dr. Tran walked through the streets looking for his mother was very moving. As was the montage of changes that Johnny's gift had already made. Wow.

— In the book, one of Johnny's few friends was his doctor; here, it becomes Bruce, his physical therapist.

— The kids in Sarah's class in 1996 sang "Mr. Sandman." And Bruce called Johnny "Rip Van Winkle."

— The "taste of the day" love scene in the closet was very sweet.

— There was a wheel of fortune in the cartoon in Johnny's hospital room as he woke.

— Reverend Purdy briefly mentioned political candidate Greg Stillson, who is a pivotal, major character in the book. Stillson was running for Congress in Maine's second district.

— Bringing their son to meet Johnny was a wonderful thing for Sarah to do. (Notice the tree parallel?) I'm glad they didn't try for a "secret baby" plot, something that would be impossible to do with a psychic, anyway.

— Speaking of the tree scenes, the first one had Johnny telling his students that nothing in nature is random. It implied that his accident wasn't random, either.


Johnny: "As you can see, I put on my tux." I thought that line was wonderful for the character.

Johnny: "I'm not going to Atlantic City, all right?"
Bruce: "Okay, that Indian casino in Connecticut is closer."

Definitely four out of four stars, even with the cliffhanger ending,

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. All I can say is, "Wow!!" I don't remember a pilot ever making me cry before -- I'm just not that invested in the characters, yet. But, this one did. Not once, but twice.

    The first was that wonderful scene between Sarah and Johnny at the hospital. It was so beautifully written and acted without being OTT. And, the second was, of course, the reunion of Dr. Tran and his mother. One would have to have a heart of stone not to cry at that.

    I am, frankly, amazed at Anthony Michael Hall. He was always (in my opinion), the weakest of the Brat Pack, but here he is simply marvelous. Who knew the geeky kid could actually act?!?

    Quick question, Billy. Should I read the book now or wait until later in the series? Because, you know that it's downloading as I type this...

  2. Chris, I read the book years before the series came out and loved it. (The movie with Christopher Walken is very good, too.) The series has the same premise and characters, but it goes in a different direction. So -- will it spoil you? I think so. But it's probably not too serious a spoil.

    Wow. That meandered a bit. No one has asked me about that one before. Okay, the book is much more like the series than the Buffy movie is like the Buffy series. And I'd better stop now. :)

  3. Billie: First, and most importantly, deepest apologies for misspelling your name yesterday. No excuses, just a senior moment. Sorry!

    I started the book today and am enjoying it. Can you believe it? It's the first Stephen King I've ever read.

  4. Chris, if I had a nickel for every time someone has addressed me online as Billy, well... I'd probably have $3.95. :)

    You've never read Stephen King? OMG. Don't tell Josie! She'll have kittens.

  5. Kittens everywhere!

    (Actually, that's not a bad thing, is it?)

    ChrisB, there are some great Stephen King books out there. Some duds, too. Let me know if you want any recommendations. We could even do a discussion thread. :-)

  6. i was amazed that sarah was with johnny at the hospital the whole time without breaking down in front of him. sarah was always a strong character and she shows it well in this episode. johnny had bruce for his therapist and they grew to be best friends while sarah was with walt and jj.johnny and sarah at the fair and inside the car was awfully cute while she was telling him how many children they would have. sarah crying while putting on her lipstick was a very emotional scene as she was going in to see johnny again. the next time they got together was down on the stairs. johnny's vision of his nurse's daughter in a fire was scary as she was saved by the firefighters and dr tran went back home to find his mother.

  7. this episode starts off in 1976 where the children are outside on ice then we see little johnny who shows off to sarah who would later become his fiancee before a kid comes along and accidentally knocks johnny on the ice hitting his head when a kid goes back to retrieve his hockey stick when he falls through the ice before the coach comes and gets him out of the water. johnny is sitting in a tree with his other students about photosynthesis before he's caught by the principal when sarah and others watch from a window johnny climbing from the tree. johnny walks into a closet where sarah kisses him before they're caught by other kids. johnny goes home to his mother and purdy telling them sarah and him are going to a carnival that night. johnny and sarah are walking around the carnival when they see a wheel of fortune game that they bet all their money on. johnny drives sarah home and kisses her goodbye when he drives towards a semi trailer which crashes into his car and sends his car flipping several times down. johnny is in a coma in the hospital when he wakes up and sees elaine's daughter caught in a fire while dr. train tells purdy he woke up when johnny sees dr. tran's mother in trouble. sarah sees johnny for the first time as she says she has a son and she's married and she tells him she still loves him and johnny loves her. bruce is johnny's physical therapist who has him walk again while johnny can't find the strength to walk. johnny sees sarah at his house after being in the hospital when she brings little johnny along with her introducing him to johnny as johnny is his father. dr tran goes home to find his mother as they're both happy to see each other. elaine hugs her daughter maggie running out of the house.


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