Tuned In

The Journalist vs. the Monsters: These Days, Bet on the Monsters

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It’s a long-debated question which the public hates more, lawyers or journalists. But people at least hate lawyers better. Whatever their contempt for the legal profession, TV viewers never get sick of watching legal dramas, whereas the recent history of TV shows about journalists is the history of failure. Ink ran dry. Lateline flatlined. Deadline? Just dead. There have been exceptions (Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore among them), but many of them on the order of Superman — a journalist loved best when he was off duty — or Ray Romano of Everybody Loves Raymond. Ray was a sports columnist, but one of the reasons for the comedy’s success may have been that it rarely
reminded us of that. At least lawyers are the profession people love to hate. Journalists get just plain hate.

So it’s even more puzzling that ABC chose, of all programs to remake this season, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, the 1974-75 creature serial. The new series, simply titled Night Stalker (debuts tonight, 9 p.m. E.T.), has a similar storyline to the original: an investigative journalist (this time the hunkier Stuart Townsend) tracks down paranormal phenomena one episode at a time. The remake is generically scary and blandly written: it would have shaky prospects even if CSI weren’t slotted against it. Remaking a cult show is thankless: most of the audience won’t know or care about the original, and the rest will inevitably be disappointed.

But more than that, the show’s time may simply have passed. Look again at when the original Night Stalker (coming out on DVD next week) ran. It debuted on Sept. 13, 1974 — Friday the 13th — roughly a month after President Richard Nixon resigned. The idea of a hard-hitting reporter finding the scary occult terrors hidden by the powers that be was, shall we say, a little more with the times. (Even at that, the show only lasted a season.) You could credibly sell a reporter as a hero, even a protector, then.

The respectful tone of the original comes across in the opening credits, which show a stern-faced Carl Kolchak sitting down at histypewriter, the camera loving panning over the keys of his instrument as he bangs out a story. In the series, Kolchak — a hard-boiled wisecracker in a straw hat — harangues cops and corrupt politicians who give him the runaround. ("For once, be a cop instead of an ostrich!") With Watergate fresh in viewers’ minds, it made sense to expect them to trust the pressman against the obfuscating forces of The Man. Today, the viewer would be just as likely start a blog to prove that Kolchak’s big zombie-murder scoop was based on false documents from partisan hacks biased against the undead.

ABC at least found a credible guy to produce the series: Frank Spotnitz, who was part of the team behind The X-Files. And to hedge its bets, the new Night Stalker gives its Kolchak a sympathetic backstory: he believes his wife was killed by monsters and wants to avenge her death. But the commercial saving grace may come from another twist: Kolchak is pursued by an FBI agent who believes that Kolchak murdered his wife himself. After antiterrorism foulups, after Jayson Blair, will viewers trust a Fed even less than a reporter? That’s a mystery it’ll take a Kolchak to solve. If he can stay on the air long enough.