Stalking in the footsteps of the original: A critical review of “Night Stalker” (2005)

So Halloween was on a Saturday this year, and the weekends are my blogging stomping grounds, but I missed the date. A tragedy, truly, for Halloween is my Christmas, and, given my usual writing fair, I’m sure it’s a day that’s dear to the hearts of all five (two?) of my loyal readers…who I’m sure were mildly disappointed that I didn’t post anything before moving on to something else.

I would like to say I was up to something earth-shattering in the meantime, or at least out cold with malaria, but no such luck. But at least I was watching television, specifically “American Gothic,” the Shaun Cassidy/Sam Raimi project, and “Night Stalker,” Frank Spotnitz’s re-boot of Kolchak.

The character of Kolchak, for those not in the know, originated in ABC’s “The Night Stalker” (1972). It still ranks as one of the most intelligent productions in television: a smart performance by Darren McGavin, smart direction by John Moxey, and a very smart script by Richard “I Am Legend” Matheson. The film spawned an equally intelligent sequel and a not-so-intelligent-but-still-fun TV show, and it was a huge influence on “The X-Files.” So perhaps its no surprise that, in 2005, ABC decided to make a gritty reboot of the show…which was promptly canceled (in the middle of a cliffhanger, no less). Was that fair? Well…

Ironically, all the 70s Kolchak projects were shot in LA, but none of them took place in LA until 2005. But why is it that whenever anyone photographs Los Angeles for TV, they have to get an overhead helicopter shot of the freeway? “True Detective” did it in season two, “Wicked City” is doing it right now, and “Night Stalker” was obviously in on the fun. I suppose what they say is true: LA doesn’t have a piece of architecture more iconic than the 405.

In the reboot, crime reporter Carl Kolchak is obsessed with his wife’s murder, and his investigations into her death lead him to the paranormal. He’s aided by the staff of the LA Beacon as often as he clashes with them, and he’s pursued by a zealous FBI man as he dodges his own past. There are clear shades of “X-Files” (which Spotnitz also worked on); it’s perhaps a sign of the times that the original Kolchak was basically a lone wolf whereas the modern Kolchak is an unwilling team player.

For the most part the show is handsomely photographed (aside from some 90s style camera effects, reminiscent of the superb “X-Files” disciple “FreakyLinks”). Los Angeles is cast as a city of glass skyscrapers: transparent and too high off the ground. The music is also nice–a delightful piano theme by Phillip Glass and some good soundtrack choices augmenting the score (although the use of pop music vanishes after the first couple of episodes).

There are some interesting character studies–episodes “Burning Man” and “Malum”–and a couple of genuine shocks–“Three.” A standout is “What’s the Frequency, Kolchak?” which sports a great atmosphere and turns the character study on Kolchak himself. But often enough the stories seem familiar and characters fall flat; Stuart Townsend’s scowling Kolchak is largely humorless, Eric Jungmann’s photographer is trying too hard to be humorous, and Gabrielle Union’s ace reporter is little more than a walking foil for Kolchak (think Mulder, Scully and an irritating camera jockey). Only Cotter Smith’s stoic editor is somewhat engaging, and he’s still nowhere near entertaining. What are we missing here?

In the episode “Timeless,” Kolchak investigates a series of murders that seems oddly similar to murders that occurred 35 years ago…and 35 years before that… The creature behind the killing is painted in a slightly sympathetic light (and its close relationship to a human assistant curiously predicts “Let the Right One In”). It’s an intriguing depiction, but it’s also very Matheson; in fact, the episode almost feels like a rewrite of 1973’s “The Night Strangler.”

Re-write, re-make, re-boot. There lies the problem of any reboot: comparison with the original. Are such comparisons understandable? Of course. In fact, given human beings’ penchant for psychological laziness, it might even be biological. But is it fair? That’s a hard to say. The problem is the very notion of reboot calls the original to mind (and it didn’t help that “Night Stalker” went as far as digitally dropping McGavin into the pilot). For better or for worse, it’s probably impossible to untie reboots from their pre-boots; comparison is just too compelling.