Extreme situations and extreme behavior mark two fascinating if flawed new dramas: ABC's seriously creepy The Whispers, a thriller about sweet lil' kids who kill, and HBO's Nightingale, a one-man film starring Selma's David Oyelowo.
An X-Files-ish sci-fi procedural carefully calibrated to twist your mind, The Whispers premieres at 10 p.m. Monday.
The first episode opens with the attempted murder of a suburban hausfrau by her daughter Harper (Abby Ryder Fortson).
An awfully cute, clever 6-year-old, Harper lures her mom into her tree house and asks her to stand on the red crayon "X" she's marked on the floor. Voilà, in a moment of Roadrunner hilarity and horror movie mayhem, mom falls through the floorboards.
Harper constructed the elaborate trap with help from her invisible friend, Drill, who talks to her through electrical appliances. Is he real, or simply the invention of a pint-size psycho?
Enter our lovely heroine, FBI Special Agent Claire Bennigan (American Horror Story's Lily Rabe), who figures out Drill is real - he's already prompted one little boy to blow up his mom's office.
A thoughtful, mournful, sharp detective, Claire is recovering from the death of her fighter pilot husband, Drew (Milo Ventimiglia), who was flying in the Arctic Circle when his jet disappeared.
To make matters worse, Drew went on his last sortie after discovering Claire was two-timing him with their friend Wes (Barry Sloane). Even worse, two years before that, Claire and Drew's little boy Henry (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) was struck deaf after an illness.
With us so far?
Created and executive-produced by Soo Hugh (Under the Dome), The Whispers is based on Ray Bradbury's alien invasion short story "Zero Hour," previously adapted for TV in a 1992 episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater.
ABC's version, which unfolds over 13 episodes, is far more ambitious and grand, if not grandiloquent.
Even as more children are falling under Drill's spell, Claire's ex-lover Wes is sent by the Defense Department to investigate a downed plane in the Sahara. Turns out it's Drew's jet. There is evidence it was downed by a bolt of lightning - and that the pilot survived.
Cut to . . . Drew stalking one of the latest kids claimed by Drill. So is Drill Drew, and thus Drew Drill?
The Whispers is just plain nuts. And, oh so much fun.
True, the series is marred by some very lazy writing: Major plot twists occur through the lamest manufactured events. In one scene, false suspense is created when a photo e-mailed to Claire takes two full minutes to download on her high-end laptop.
Despite it all, this is seriously addictive stuff. Where is The Whispers leading us? I wager we'll all be glued to our TVs trying to figure that out.
Brit thesp Oyelowo (MI-5, The Paperboy) soars in director Elliott Lester's intimate, one-character film, Nightingale, which premieres at 9 p.m. Friday on HBO.
An intense dissection of a mind sinking into madness and despair, the film features Oyelowo as Peter Snowden, a soldier-turned-cashier at a grocery store. He lives with his devoutly religious mom, a mean, spiteful, judgmental hag. Or so Peter claims. We never get to meet her: The film opens minutes after Peter has murdered the woman in a fit of rage.
An isolated, lonely man of uncertain sexuality, Peter is the ultimate unreliable narrator. He's a compulsive liar who bends the truth to fit his moods. And he refuses to take responsibility for his own actions. Yet he's strangely compelling, even sympathetic.
Nightingale is composed of a series of frantic, sad, mournful, angry, hateful, and pitiful dialogues Peter has with his dead mom, his video blog, and family members on the phone. He tells us he killed mom because she refused to let him invite an old Army buddy over for dinner.
By degrees we realize that Peter is madly, obsessively, desperately in love with the man.
Or is Peter, who hasn't seen the guy in years, merely in love with the idea of having, for the first time in his life, a close friend and confidant?
Nightingale rages on at times with no real direction. At others, it hits us over the head with pretentious symbolism.
Oyelowo's inspired performance keeps it afloat.
Premieres at 10 p.m. Monday on 6ABC.
Premieres at 9 p.m. Friday on HBO.