“Hide And Seek” is preoccupied with maps. Drill, the ominous invisible presence manipulating children into acts of murder and terrorism, makes Henry Bennigan (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) promise not to tell his mother and grandmother about his restored hearing, but Henry almost spills the secret when he sneaks in a Blue’s Clues-style show after bedtime. “Use the map!” he yells at the screen, overjoyed to hear again, and Grandma (Dee Wallace as Claire Bennigan’s mother, Willie Starling) opens the door, asking, “Who’s here? Who’s talking?” before sending him back to bed.
When Wes Lawrence (Barry Sloane) returns from investigating the mysterious crash site in Africa, he gives 8-year-old Minx (Kylie Rogers) a piece of currency to pin to the map in her bedroom, a memento of his top-secret mission for the Department Of Defense. Over a game board (itself an abstracted map), Minx persuades a friend to print out the DOD files she saved to a flash drive, including a schematic from a reactor, a map of a system no doubt destined for more of Drill’s mayhem. One of Wes’ investigators, pinpointing a satellite feed of Sean Bennigan’s mysterious crash, also shows him an massive unidentified shape hovering over the map of Africa.
But all these maps are curiously vague. It’s reflective of the problem at the center of The Whispers. The first episode introduced an intriguing premise populated by hastily sketched-out characters; the second episode fails to give those characters or their circumstances any more depth. It’s showing us the map instead of the territory, the types instead of the characters, the lifestyles instead of the lives.
In the first episode, this could have been intentional slickness, a knowing illustration of this weirdly circumscribed social circle’s failures to connect meaningfully despite the obvious ties between them. As it continues in the second episode, it looks more like unstudied superficiality.
Horror can lurk in banal suburbia or sunny urban hominess or moneyed modern design, but the sets of The Whispers look more like catalog photo shoots, or like the model homes of Arrested Development, neither of which is conducive to terror or plausibility. Every character’s home is different, but they’re all blandly, boringly well-appointed with no personality. It’s dull. Worse, it’s distracting.
It’s not just the physical spaces of The Whispers that suffer from this vagueness. The whole show feels both over-peopled and under-inhabited. “You’re making this personal,” Wes accuses Alex Myers (Alan Ruck) when the executive director confiscates his breached computer. Ruck does his best to inject some personality, some specificity, into their confrontation, but Myers isn’t making it personal; no one could. There isn’t enough personality in the script for any of the human conflict to feel personal. The many characters’ lives—their affluent, unhappy lives—are too broadly described to be personal. They aren’t characters; they’re templates to hang a plot on.
Let’s look at the lead character’s home life. Claire Bennigan (Lily Rabe) is startlingly clumsy with her own son. In the two years since Henry lost his hearing, Claire has learned sign language along with him, but there are no other apparent accommodations to his hearing impairment. Mom and Grandma speak to each other, sometimes inches from his face, without noticing their rudeness. Claire turns away from Henry to listen for sounds he can’t hear (or she thinks he can’t) without ever indicating what’s distracting her. There’s no visual doorbell or phone signal in their home, though a second peephole at child’s height suggests Henry habitually answers their front door. His television doesn’t even have closed captions turned on.
I’m not complaining about Henry Bennigan’s marginalization; that, at least, would be character development and palpable conflict. I’m not complaining that a “child specialist” (and that title alone is characteristically imprecise) who so deftly relates to children in crisis flounders to connect with her own son, an irony of which the show seems unaware. I’m complaining that The Whispers fails to paint its characters and their world in anything anything but broad strokes. That’s reflected not only in the writing, but in almost every aspect of the show, from plot to dialogue to set design.
Details matter, and details like a household’s adaptations to a child’s abilities and challenges give depth and texture to a fictional setting. When a show asks an audience to believe the incredible, it needs to ground itself in a credible world. It needs rounded characters full of life. It needs to care about its own world, its own characters, so the audience can care, too.
That’s doubly true in a show doling out tenuous bits of mystery slowly and obscurely, as The Whispers does. Sean Bennigan (Milo Ventimiglia), still apparently amnesiac, breaks into Dr. Maria Benavidez’ (Catalina Denis) townhouse to steal her gun and… take a shower? Have a vision? The episode ends with Bennigan holding the doctor hostage, leaving viewers to wait one more week before learning why he targeted her, what his next task is, and how he hopes she can help him. At least it shows the origin of his tattoos: He scrawls the newest symbol, communicated to him during his fugue state, on her bathroom floor in eyeliner, then roughly tattoos it onto his arm.
Drill, the nefarious entity at the heart of the plot, barely makes an appearance this week. (Well, he never makes an appearance; he, or it, is invisible.) Drill rings a doorbell and flickers some lights to forestall Henry from confiding in his mother. To persuade Minx’s friend to play along with his malicious game, Drill flickers a light and makes an electronic game chatter. To clinch Harper’s continued faith in him, he tinkers with her comatose mother’s vital signs and—you guessed it—flickers some lights.
By the time Minx runs away from home at the episode’s end, any menace left in Drill’s silence is wearing thin. But the image of the pajama-clad girl, walking alone down a dark street as streetlights go out above her, could have been a powerful ending, underlining the vulnerability of the children Drill targets. Instead, the episode diffuses that tension, moving on to Henry talking to his television, Sean Bennigan kidnapping Dr. Benavidez, Claire Bennigan discovering the symbol in the townhouse, and Minx settling herself for the night in the neighborhood playground’s tunnel maze as she pores over the schematics Drill requested.
Between car chases, foot chases, kidnapping, breaking and entering, psychic seizures, Federal seizures, and growled confrontations, there’s a lot of action in “Hide And Seek,” but not much plot revelation, character development, or meaning of any kind. So far, the show simply isn’t crafting the credible, concrete world it needs to support its otherworldly aspects. Like Minx’s map of the world, roughed out into featureless continents, The Whispers is showing us the shape of a supernatural thriller without any of the detail that could make it compelling.
- While the Feds search their home for evidence of a break-in, Lena Lawrence (Kristen Connolly) tells her cheating husband what she wants from him. “I want you to fix it!” That’s the level of specificity we can expect from this show.
- It’s weirdly reassuring to see Minx distraught by her parents’ fighting. Until now, she’s been a stereotypically smirking little psychopath, manipulating friends, playmates, and her mother with insipid ease.
- “You’re asking me to believe that your 8-year-old daughter accessed secret defense files?” Why not? The most chilling (and the most plausible) part of “Hide And Seek” is the thought that a high-ranking Department Of Defense staffer could use such a password so transparent, his kid could crack it.
- 111215. We’ve seen that number at least twice now: tattooed on Sean Bennigan’s arm and flashed on the Bennigan’s microwave display. If that’s a date, it ties The Whispers to 2015 as firmly as the set design and Claire’s skinny jeans do. No one thinks it will be a show for the ages, but this suggests they aren’t even trying to give it a shelf life.
- The painting behind Wes Lawrence’s desk is a seascape so featureless, at first I thought it was a stainless steel mirror. That’s The Whispers summed up right there: expensive-looking, sleek, even a little spooky, but ultimately empty.