Spike's adaptation of Stephen King's The Mist has dramatic aspirations, but can't avoid becoming a hazy pastiche of past horror films and TV series.
From the outset it's clear The Mist aims to impress upon its viewers that it's a serious drama first and foremost, and a horror series second. That may be the only thing that's immediately clear, as the series, based the Stephen King novella, plays around with elements familiar to members of King's devoted fan base, as well as those from Frank Darabont's intense and somber 2007 feature film of the same name, but with less successful results.
Oddly enough, in its premiere and through so much of the series' early marketing, The Mist seems to be evoking the same sort of "humans are their own worst enemy" type of ethos delivered in The Walking Dead, which Darabont brought to the small screen in 2010. "Fear. Human. Nature." is the tagline for the show, which despite its various intended readings, really boils down to the same survival of the fittest, every man for himself philosophy that's so prominent in Darabont's former television home.
Unlike The Walking Dead, The Mist has a pre-supernatural crisis community to develop its story around and that's where it spends the vast majority of the first episode. Before the mist can roll in, creator Christian Torpe aims to first get the audience invested in the various goings-on of Bridgeville, Maine. He develops a series of plot lines comprised primarily of small-town conflicts, ranging from marital disputes to criminal networks to an alleged sexual assault carried out by the town's football hero, all as a way of first establishing who the various characters are before thrusting them together in groupings that guarantee conflict once the titular mists start rolling in and the terror begins.
Doubling up on sources of conflict certainly promises that The Mist will have plenty to be occupied with over the course of its 10-episode first season, but the kinds of conflict presented in the first hour don't offer much in the way of excitement or genuine intrigue. The marital dispute between Vikings' Alyssa Sutherland's Eve Copeland and her husband Kevin (Morgan Spector), especially after the latter's more relaxed parenting creates the situation that finds their daughter Alex (Gus Birney) the victim of a sexual assaulted at a party, does little to generate much interest in the characters themselves. It provides only a basic outline of who the people are as individuals. That puts the responsibility on The Mist to create more compelling characters in the midst of a supernatural crisis and, presumably, the collapse of societal norms. That's asking a lot; and as evidenced by the dearth of interesting characters in shows with a similar setup – The Walking Dead and recent Stephen King adaptation, Under the Dome – it's particularly difficult when the characters are shuffled around like pieces on a game board, slotted into the most dramatic situation possible, like when Eve and Alex find themselves trapped by the mists in a shopping mall with Alex's attacker, Jay.
Kevin, along with his daughter's friend Adrian (Russell Posner), winds up in a similarly fraught scenario, as he's talked too quickly into freeing a pair of prisoners – Bryan (Okezie Morro), a soldier who may be suffering a nervous breakdown, and Mia (Danica Curcic), a drug-addled criminal who killed a guy with a pitchfork earlier in the hour – from the town's jail once the mist rolls in and people start dying horrible deaths. Meanwhile, Connor Heisel (Mad Men's Darren Pettie), Bridgeville's sheriff and Jay's father is separated from the group after he inexplicably agrees to sit in the car while Kevin runs into the sheriff's office to fetch Adrian.
In other words, the pilot suffers from the same issues as most pilots, in that there is so much heavy lifting to be done within the confines of a single hour, everything is painted with the broadest strokes possible. Critics were only handed the first hour, which doesn't necessarily bode well for subsequent episodes, but you never know; perhaps Torpe has figured out how to make the most of these various plot threads and to overcome the clichés the series seems to be awash in during the premiere. As a sign that things may yet improve, Six Feet Under and American Horror Story alum Frances Conroy pops up and delivers a typically interesting read on what might otherwise be a stock character who sees her otherwise exceedingly quaint existence thrown into chaos as the first signs of Bridgeville's collapse takes her husband in an act of panicked, accidental violence.
It is in the violence that the series may attract and hold on to its prospective audience. Being on cable in the 10pm slot, The Mist has a bit more freedom with regard to how graphic it can get. After the mostly leaden first hour finally commences with the terror, an unpleasant woman is shown with her jaw ripped off and a hapless deputy's face is partially eaten by bugs before he winds up being shot in the head. That's on top of the guy being skewered with a pitchfork and a dog being decapitated after running off into the mist.
Ultimately, The Mist premiere excels in generating tension – from supernatural sources and otherwise – but where it comes up short is in striking a balance between its small-town skirmishes and the magnitude of what's about to befall the residents of Bridgeville. In short, this premiere relies too heavily on familiar horror formulas – the kind born of Stephen King's imagination and the kind that's already become tired on shows like The Walking Dead – which makes it hard to separate circumstances of The Mist from the aforementioned summer series Under the Dome. Had the series found a way to freshen the central idea of the show or its "town under siege by supernatural forces" conceit, it might have found a more immediately compelling reason for viewers to continue tuning in. For now, though, enter The Mist with caution.
The Mist continues next Thursday @10pm on Spike.