After recently revisiting the original Carl Kolchak, I want to spend some more time with the little-regarded reboot from 2005, because I feel like it’s time the series is afforded at least a little more respect than it got when it broadcast. First off, let’s get the inevitable comparison out of the way. Apart from themes and a few character names shared between series, the two shows have little else linking them. I’m not going to waste time comparing McGavin’s wily truth-seeker to Stuart Townsend’s haunted reporter because there’s no point – and it does Townsend no favours. So let’s mostly set aside the first iteration of Kolchak and move on, because Night Stalker is a very different beast.
When Night Stalker was first shown in 2005 TV had come a long way from the syndication-dreams of ‘70s shows. Series like The X-Files, Millennium, Twin Peaks and a good number more had shown audiences had an appetite for monster-of-the-week episodes and season/series long story arcs. For all those that tuned in to see what creature or ghoul would get vanquished, there were probably more that dug the monsters but also the tidbit dropping of signs and portents that made up a network-show arc. In fact, it became a necessary part of even the most self-contained series’, with behemoths like NCIS folding a mythology of sorts into each season. Equally true is that the big series arcs frequently failed to actually end in any satisfying way. The recent X-Files revival spent its first season (that show’s 10th) trying to unravel all the bullshit the 2002 conclusion had wrought (and the intervening feature film had largely ignored) into some sort of order. Twin Peaks might be back now and more highly-regarded than ever, but let’s not romance the fact that pretty much nobody gave a good fuck when the original series tanked after two seasons. Millennium, meanwhile, just ended before being ‘gifted’ a risible, rote half-baked send-off via Mulder and Scully.
All those series had, however, informed the network template, particularly for shows that featured the supernatural or the unexplained. Into this environment Frank Spotnitz was tasked to produce an update of Night Stalker. Spotnitz had worked on most of the X-Files and not too long before this project had worked with Michael Mann briefly on Robbery Homicide Division, a show where Mann as producer effectively made Heat for the small screen and tested out the digital filmmaking that would show up in Collateral, Miami Vice and most of what he has done since. It’s worth mentioning this because what Spotnitz took from his time on RHD was an inspiration to apply similar techniques to his new show. Consequently, Night Stalker used digital filmmaking that makes it reminiscent of Mann’s series and features and importantly gives it a totally different feel from the ‘70s series (oh, I’ll mention it occasionally). Even over a decade later, Night Stalker looks great. The cellphones and technology inevitably dates it, but other than that it remains remarkably aesthetically fresh. It’s an important break not just from the original but also from precursors like Chris Carter’s show because whilst definitely TV, it provides a cinematic sheen. From the start Spotnitz also had a clear idea of what the story arc would be and how Kolchak would be at the centre of it. As we expect, he has to have a tortured back story and so here it is that someone, or something, killed his wife in an encounter Carl barely survived and his work is in part a hunt for answers. There’s an FBI agent who thinks Carl killed his wife and pops up occasionally to suggest maybe Carl isn’t the good guy here. There’s a mysterious, nebulous conspiracy plot that bubbles away during the episodes about an unknowable, organised evil directing events. It checks all the network show boxes. But these elements are probably the least interesting things about the show. In all likelihood, had the show been a hit and continued it probably would have screwed up the arc ending anyway. So what is it that makes the show worth a revisit (or in all probability for most, a first time visit)?
Firstly, the pilot itself is a great bit of what-the-fuckery that probably did nothing to help people enthuse about tuning in the next week. Its tale of people getting murdered or kidnapped by some sort of mutant cave/desert dwelling things isn’t exactly clear. But it lays out an important element of the show from the start that is vital. This is not a supernatural show about ghosts or vampires or the usual creature-of-the-week. It’s worth pointing out this is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t thing with such shows – fit in with expectations and get trashed for it, try something new and get ignored for it is pretty much lose-lose. Arguably, this show is a more interesting, cerebral take on the concept and idea of evil (both the random and the devious, conspiratorial sort). It references the original’s themes more in regard to episodes like The Devil’s Platform or The Trevi Collection, those that didn’t rely on the genre’s classical villains to tell their story. It also helps establish the atmosphere of the show. I’m not a huge fan of the current trend in film (and to an extent TV) for everything to be grey and mournful and emo and desperate because it’s usually an aesthetic choice used to cover up the fact there’s fuck all going on behind and because well, that’s life too sometimes, and it ain’t escapism. But here it’s done well. Like a relatively contemporary series, the 2004 USA Network’s American remake of Touching Evil (one of the great lost TV shows for this writer), in this respect it is ahead of its time in tone and approach, but masters it better than series do today. After cancelling that show at the end of its first season (saying it did not fit the network’s theme), USA Network would swerve the opposite way for a decade after TE with frothy (though frequently enjoyable) shows like Psych, Burn Notice and White Collar before returning back to it with the awards-heavy-hitter Mr Robot. For me though where Mr Robot is undeniably interesting and compelling it misses what these shows, Evil and Stalker, do so well – making their characters part of a dark world but not so dark in and of themselves. Robot and others are for me less real, less genuine even though the sheen is ostensibly one of a more authentic representation of reality.
But getting back to Night Stalker proper, it sets up that this won’t be the standard ghouls and ghosts villainy. The next point is an expansion of the above about tone. It’s arguably po-faced that’s fair to say. Despite this, there’s an air of real mystery to a lot of what goes on in the series. That’s not to say you can’t guess who has done what or how an episode will end. It’s not the point here, coming before the relentless need to shock and surprise that too often blights shows these days, as they confuse comfortability and familiarity with being boring or not gripping enough. TV of now frequently seems stuck between genuine invention and a constant need to keep your attention, trapped on a treadmill running at that point in a relationship where one partner fears the interest from the other is waning and so they board an ever-spinning wheel of surprise and dumbassery that gets them, very often, absolutely nowhere good. Rather for Night Stalker it’s a case of the world created being one where evil happens every day right in front of us and we don’t recognise it, which is pretty much bang on the real one. But it appeals in that it suggests there’s a reason for this, and if there’s a reason we can fight against it, even if the evil is seemingly random in nature. It’s a dark show for sure, but it has a hopefulness that balances out the gloom.
Though the show isn’t really about performances they are at the very least solid. Townsend gets the shittier end of the deal, trying to follow McGavin. It’s really not helpful to compare the two characters. McGavin’s Carl was a journalist, just going where the story took him. There was no interest for him in why these things were happening and the idea that there was a darkness out there people didn’t know about that he had to share was more about him thinking if something happened, somebody needed to tell the story, as simply as that. His conspiracies were usually of the city-politics type, a remnant of the counter-culture suspicions prevalent at the time. Townsend’s Carl is already a true believer, and though he similarly thinks the public have a right to know, it’s really about his wife and what that means if he had to make the choice. In this, Townsend has a different character to play and he does a fine job. The Scully for this show is Gabrielle Union’s Perri Reed, the skeptic balance to Carl’s willingness to see the supernatural wherever he goes. Though a head crime reporter of experience, it’s a new world for Perri as she follows Kolchak down the rabbit hole and Union does a good job of trying to make her character tough, capable but also out of her depth. In this version Tony Vincenzo is played by Cotter Smith and they totally drop the combative banter of the earlier show, making Tony an ally. Along with Eric Jungmann as photographer Jain McManus, it’s the type of reliable ensemble network shows have no problem putting together.
Maybe you will try the show out. Maybe you’ll find it too similar to other shows despite the points laid out above. You might just totally disagree with me and not like it – audiences certainly didn’t and even a SyFy channel repeat a couple of years later was pretty much ignored. But if you do try it and like it, the DVD release does deliver. It includes the four never-broadcast episodes that end the series, as well as scripts for two more unproduced episodes, an interview with Spotnitz and two commentaries during which he spills about the meanings behind things as well as where he would have gone had the show continued. It’s not the oft-sought closure for a cancelled show, but it’s pretty good. It’s satisfying in that a fairly unloved, ignored show gets some due by even having a home media release for a start, but more than that having a decent set of extras. That the show was cancelled is a mixed blessing. It barely has time to get going, but then again it doesn’t stay long enough to get shit. All things considered for me, Night Stalker is an interesting failure that should get at least a little more attention and deserved better than its fate. It’s a series I come back to here and there because something about it sticks with me, something resonates, and if that’s the point of art, of culture, to connect – well it does that for me.