It’s July 22nd, 2011. LMFAO is still at number one, and my cheeky decision to do Billboard charts means I can’t get more than the number one single, so we’re going to be bored on charts for a while. I could switch back to UK charts, but really, this feels funnier. In news, the final Space Shuttle mission lands, and Anders Breivik kills seventy-seven people in Norway.
While on television, Dead of Night. For the most part, the arrival of Jane Espenson was a major boon for Miracle Day. She is, after all, flat out one of the best writers of genre television working in the United States. Having trained under Whedon, she went on to amble about any number of shows, including a sizable stint on Battlestar Galactica, where she quickly shed the label she’d acquired on Buffy as your go-to writer for the light and funny episodes, instead establishing herself as a flexible writer who could make almost anything sing. She is, by any estimation, very, very good.
And it’s clear from the breakdowns of episodes that Davies picked her to do a lot of the heavy lifting on the show. Davies surely provided some lines here – “they’re so alive” is, for instance, almost certainly him. But Espenson is clearly set up to do the bulk of the actual writing – she’s the one with the job of making a majority of the scripts work. The trouble is that she’s been dealt a strangely unworked through hand. There’s a dramatic shift in tone that’s taken place between “Rendition” and “Dead of Night.” “Rendition” wanted to play at being a procedural – at being a story about what would actually happen if the Miracle took place. Yes, it cut corners in some key spots, but there was a real effort being spent to figure out what actual problems might spring out of this premise.
One episode later, however, that’s in tatters. We’ve got magic painkillers, the panels discussing what to do have derailed into being excuses to hammer on the pro-life movement instead of actual explorations of the premise, and suddenly the focus is on this Soulless cult, which is terribly ill-defined. Indeed, this is where the entire Oswald plot, dodgy to begin with, really gets into the realm of the fundamentally problematic. The problem, in a nutshell, is that you’ve got a fundamentally satiric idea – a celebrity cult around a pedophile murderer – being employed for entirely serious purposes. The “everybody falls in love with the horrible killer” story is doable, hence it having been done loads of times, but the point there is always to highlight the absurd notions involved in celebrity itself.
But this seems to be trying to employ that idea for serious purposes – as part of a quasi-realistic thriller. Although to be fair, this point could use unpacking. Certainly there’s an embrace of the ridiculous throughout Miracle Day. “Rendition” had loads of it alongside the Vera Juarez plot, and so does “Dead of Night,” with its magic contact lenses and all. But there’s also an aggressive insistence on seriousness throughout it. Everything Miracle Day does seems to say “we’re a serious drama with a few absurd elements.” And yet taking Oswald in this light is more than faintly ridiculous. He doesn’t work that way. He’s most easily read as a British parody of what Americans are like, but he’s being used in an episode where the point seems to be “in a post-Miracle world we will all worship child killers.”
As I’ve suggested, Bill Pullman’s performance does the part no favors. It’s not just that he overacts – he does, but he’s actually oddly selective about when he goes a bit over the top. Rather, it’s that when he’s not chewing the scenery he’s just radiating sleaze instead of menace. On paper Oswald is terrifying – the whole “she should have run faster” line is perfect. But on screen you feel like he’s going to sell you a shitty car, not murder your children for sport.
So that’s the problems, and the reason that Miracle Day continues to limp along unsatisfyingly. And yet for all of that, it’s difficult to dislike Miracle Day as opposed to just being frustrated with it. “Dead of Night” smolders with unrealized potential. Jack and Gwen are fantastic, and the scene of Jack calling Gwen to try to get her to say she missed him and her hanging up with him for her family is just perfect. Vera is still a great character. Esther is starting to come into her own. Even if the transition to the Phicorp plot is a bit clumsy, there’s a decent conspiracy thriller kicking up here. “Dead of Night” never manages to be as good as it feels like the premise should be, but there’s equally not much that plays out badly either.
Perhaps the most frustrating element are the Soulless. Clearly some people thought they had a great visual here, as they got plastered all over the trailers and the episode loves to linger on them. But they ultimately appear to be little more than a bunch of goths with knock-off V masks. Their facelessness becomes contentlessness – they ultimately aren’t anything more than the vague image of despair.
You could make a snarky comment about how this is a metaphor for Miracle Day. But that’s not quite fair. It’s not that the show is, thus far, without any content. Rather, it’s that it has too many ideas and is stuck throwing them all out individually, without enough time to develop or explore any of them. Any number of things in this episode could have been great storytelling, from the criticism of hardline pro-life ideology to the Soulless to the commentary on the medical industry to, yes, Oswald Danes. But the story is rapidly fragmenting to a collage of stuff that might be cool in relation to the premise, as opposed to an actual exploration of the premise’s depths. Three episodes in, that’s not a winning combination.