Summer television doesn't have to mean a steady diet of reruns and lame reality shows, not when you've got up-and-coming second-tier networks such as TNT churning out more and better original programming all the time.
The basic cable network's latest offering looks to be one of its best yet: a collection of weird and spooky tales from the master of horror himself, Stephen King.
Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King is an anthology series of eight stories that will be shown over four weeks, with the first 60-minute episode scheduled for 9 tonight and another immediately following at 10.
The chilling tales are adapted from three of King's best-selling collections of short stories - 1978's Nightshift, 1993's Nightmares & Dreamscapes, and 2002's Everything's Eventual - and they feature an all-star cast of Oscar and Emmy winners and nominees, including William Hurt, William H. Macy, Marsha Mason, Tom Berenger, Richard Thomas, and Kim Delaney.
The series kicks off with an uninterrupted, commercial-free adaptation of a King story called Battlegound. In it, Hurt plays professional hitman Jason Renshaw, a cold-blooded killer whose latest assignment is to dispatch the owner of a large toy company. He completes the job in typically efficient fashion and heads for home, a luxurious penthouse apartment in San Francisco that soon will become the battleground of the teleplay's title.
That evening, a package is delivered to Renshaw's door and inside it is a collection of green plastic toy soldiers from the same company whose CEO he's just murdered. Renshaw is puzzled but tosses the box aside.
It's not long, however, before he finds out that the tiny soldiers are anything but toys. Within minutes, the squad of little green men has scrambled out of the box, set up an attack line under the couch, and opened fire on Renshaw with their machine guns. Startled, he swats angrily as if being attacked by a swarm of bees, as tiny dots of blood appear on his face and neck.
It's amusing at first to see this icy killer fighting back against his little green foes, stepping on some, then bringing out an array of king-sized weaponry to try blasting others. But they're relentless, coming after him in helicopters and jeeps, and using a cannon to blast holes in apartment doors and walls. It becomes apparent to their foe that the soldiers' mission is to destroy him or be destroyed trying.
Finally, just when an exhausted and bloodied Renshaw thinks he's eliminated the entire attacking army - he even counts the mangled green bodies before dumping them into a trash compacter - a new character is revealed: a Rambo-like commando who is the toymaker's last chance for revenge. The commando is both funny and frightening as he stalks his prey.
The special effects that bring the little soldiers to life are stunning, and credit for this goes to the world-famous Henson Creature Shop and to the episode's director, Brian Henson, son of famed puppeteer Jim Henson and the director of Farscape and several feature films featuring the Muppets.
Hurt, an Academy Award winner and an intense actor, is so effective in conveying his thoughts with just an expression or a gesture that the episode is half over before you realize that not a word of dialogue has been spoken - nor will there be any for the remainder of the program.
But no words are needed to help in the telling of this very suspenseful and entertaining tale.
The anthology's second episode, Crouch End, airing at 10 tonight, is more of a traditional horror story starring Eion Bailey (Band of Brothers) and Claire Forlani (Meet Joe Black) as American newlyweds honeymooning in London. Trying to meet a business associate for dinner, they wind up in Crouch End, a desolate part of the city that apparently contains portals to another dimension.
After the husband gets a peek into that dimension, he begins to lose his grip on reality, and it's left to his wife to try to save them both.
Crouch End would have been more frightening, and more effective, if the terrors faced by the young couple had been merely implied, which is the case for most of the episode. But when a big, tentacled creature finally shows up to confront them, the show loses much of its suspense and becomes just another monster flick.
The rest of the King anthology includes Umney's Last Case (William H. Macy) and The End of the Whole Mess (Ron Livingston) on July 19; The Road Virus Heads North (Tom Berenger, Marsha Mason) and The Fifth Quarter (Samantha Mathis) on July 26, and Autopsy Room Four (Richard Thomas, Greta Scacchi) and You Know They Got a Hell of a Band (Kim Delaney, Steven Weber) on Aug. 2.
Each episode will be replayed the night after it is initially shown.