The Whispers is inspired by, or overlaps with, Ray Bradbury’s “Zero Hour,” but if you come to the show looking for Bradbury’s poetry, you’re likely to be disappointed. (There’s a decent chance of disappointment no matter what. The Whispers is delivering a fairly standard corruption-of-children vibe in this first episode, though it’s still establishing its world and rules.) As Zack Handlen points out in his three-episode overview, Bradbury’s story takes place in a scant few pages, over a single afternoon. It’s a tight little story, short on plot and long on atmosphere. Trying to string that out over several episodes could get tedious, and it will almost certainly require some actual, you know, plot.

The show doesn’t recreate Bradbury’s typically idyllic small-town comforts, the ramshackle houses and nights perfumed with wild-blooming flowers, or the futuristic sterility specific to “Zero Hour,” where adults trundle their shiny chromium beetles around under a sky full of rockets while kitchen butlers prepare lunch. The Whispers takes place in bourgeois blandness in the outskirts of Washington, D.C., in sprawling homes appointed with predictable mundane style, and some of the plot is predictable, too.

That doesn’t always make it ineffective.

Little Harper Well (Abby Fortson) has an invisible friend named Drill. He’s teaching her the rules of a new game. Scrambling with excitement, she gathers tools, climbs to her treehouse—a beautifully carpentered space the size of a studio apartment—then lures her mother up.

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There’s no doubt what’s going to happen, and her mother’s response cements it: Looking at the X chalked on the treehouse floor, she acquiesces to Harper’s demands: “I’ll step on it and then we go down.” Down she goes, all right, crashing through the floorboards and a long way down onto a slate terrace. “I won!” Harper crows, then frowns and wonders why her mother isn’t getting up, and why her invisible friend has vanished.

The game of Bradbury’s story is played with loud glee, a neighborhood full of small children cobbling together tools and rules and ideas under the instruction of some unseen leader. As its title suggests, The Whispers is quieter—lonelier. The children play only with Drill, not together. He (or it) comes to each of them alone, whispering promises and rules, and each child plays out the deadly game in her or his own way.

Harper loosens the floorboards of her treehouse. Months ago, Jackson set off a bomb in the government-employed structural engineering firm where his mother worked. Despite her detailed drawing of The White House with Drill’s symbol hanging in the sky above it, Minx’s plans—and Drill’s instructions for her—aren’t clear yet. When her mother demands to meet her new friend, Minx only smirks. “You will. I promise.” Whatever game Drill is instilling in his initiates, it’s a solitary one, and it’s lonelier still at the end; once the children do his bidding, Drill leaves them to find “a new friend.”

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In its first episode, The Whispers is a fundamentally lonely story. Harper defends herself against a scolding: “You weren’t listening! You’re always talking on the phone, Mommy!” Henry tells his mother, “I know we can’t hang out forever.” “Daddy’s gone. Daddy’s always gone,” Harper tells Drill in the very first scene. “Dad doesn’t like us,” Minx says to her mother.

It’s painfully literal, full of subtext rendered artlessly as text, characters speaking what might be better left implied. “X Marks The Spot” never drops a hint when it can blurt out a fact, then reiterate it. For a show predicated on stretching a slim mystery over at least a season, it isn’t an inspiring start.

It’s not just the children who are lonely. All the characters of The Whispers are isolated from each other. Claire Bennigan, FBI Agent and “child specialist,” can’t devote her attention to her son’s Little League game even during a three-month leave of absence; her boss (Alan Ruck) phones her just as Henry comes up to bat, interrupting her joy at seeing his home run.

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Married couples are kept apart—by the strictures of security, by international assignments, by their own indiscretions. “I’m not really sure what he does,” Lena (Minx’s mother) confides in a friend, “but at least he’s away from her.”

Sometimes, paradoxically, these characters are isolated by the very things that connect them. The her Lena speaks of so dismissively is Claire Bennigan, and her former lover, the man with the mysterious assignment in Africa, knows her husband… and knows his reported death three months ago isn’t what it seems.

In a world where connection is so hard to come by, it’s a shame the show doesn’t make more of the few genuine connections it has. It’s suffused with facile evocations of grief or putative honesty, leaving it alternately vacant and treacly. But occasionally the actors rise above their material and render it plausible, even genuinely affecting. Abby Fortson is well-cast as Harper: sweet, playful, and with the ability to furrow her little brow into quiet agonies of uncertainty. During their interview, Lily Rabe plays to her with easy, believable warmth. It’s the most credible relationship in the episode, and it zips by in seconds.

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Also facile is the extensive mystery tacked onto the original tale. It’s not enough that a mysterious entity is persuading children to act as a Fifth Column against their own families; The Whispers also introduced a fighter pilot diverted from The Arctic Circle to The Saraha Desert, a great outcropping of rock infused with electrical surges, a man returned from the dead, and spontaneous episodes of xenoglossia.

And yet… there’s something fun here, something intriguing. In the opening scene, Harper complains when her mother calls her inside for lunch. “No, I don’t want! I’m still learning all the rules!” she wails, and I know how she feels. For all its on-the-nose emotional beats and obfuscating larger plot, The Whispers is taking its time with the central mystery of what exactly Drill is whispering, and why, and it’s got me hooked… for a few episodes, at least. Like the children susceptible to Drill, I hear The Whispers, and I want to play its game.

Stray observations:

  • After warning off Bennigan from questioning Harper further, Harper’s father and his lawyer cooperatively allow her to interject several more questions without complaint or demur. Uh, no, FBI Agent, that isn’t how that goes.
  • At first glance, the cast of The Whispers is realistically diverse. But in this episode, the non-white characters exist only to forward the white character’s stories: the sympathetic friend who only says “You can call me anytime”; the DoD assistant who provides exposition for his boss; a skeptical partner to act as foil to the lead character; a child in a playground who’s frightened by another child’s invisible friend; a doctor who explicates an amnesiac patient’s circumstances.
  • I was pleased to see a hearing-impaired central character centrally positioned in this series, hoping it would be a matter-of-fact piece of inclusive writing, but ending the first episode with Henry thanking Drill “for fixing me” and promising to keep his magically restored hearing a secret undermined that excitement handily.
  • On the other hand: Dee Wallace! Alan Ruck!

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