First episode impressions: ‘The Mist’ (TV review)

Spike TV publicity photo

Anyone who has driven through a thick Atlantic Coast fog that limits vision to 5 feet in front of your car knows that few experiences are tenser – especially if you’re not familiar with the area. Therefore, “The Mist” (10 p.m. Eastern Thursdays on Spike) – a TV series that follows in the tradition of the Stephen King short story (1980) and the movie (2007) – should theoretically be scary. But it makes the weird decision to create fairly safe environments in the first three episodes (which can be streamed at spike.com).

One group is stranded at a church, another at a shopping mall. Both places are stocked with enough food and drink that they’ll survive for a while. And once they are forced to relocate, the mist itself won’t hurt them – something they should be thankful for, considering it comes courtesy of the same U.S. government that once sprayed St. Louis citizens with experimental chemicals. The monsters in the mist will hurt them, perhaps, but we as viewers (who know we’re watching a horror series based on a King story) have more evidence of that than the characters do. So after the opening scene where amnesiac soldier Bryan (Okezie Morro) finds his dog viciously murdered as the mist rolls through the forest, the tension defuses.

That’s an understandable choice since this is an ongoing TV series rather than a movie or miniseries. Created by Denmark’s Christian Torpe, “The Mist” aims to be a character drama, with the horror dealt out sparingly. Indeed, I wouldn’t describe a single moment from the first three episodes as scary, although there is a fun – and totally expected – special effect of a poor, bloodied victim being thrown against the mall’s glass window as the survivors watch from the inside.

None of the character arcs or interactions are particularly compelling, although there’s a bit of a mystery about who raped young Alex Cunningham (Gus Birney) at a high school party before the mist arrived. Alex’s best bud, Adrian (Russell Posner), says the perpetrator was quarterback Jay (Luke Cosgrove). But every subtle and not-so-subtle indication is that Jay is innocent and Adrian is mistaken or lying. My guess is he’s lying, and he’s possibly the rapist himself. I care about the answer only as an intellectual exercise, not because I’m attached to these people.

Another of Alex’s conflicts comes from the fact that she likes her cool dad, Kevin (Morgan Spector), more than her overprotective mom, Eve (Alyssa Sutherland). Presumably, the writers are trying for an arc where Alex gradually sees the value of her mom’s parenting style when the situation gets hairy. But all they’ve accomplished so far is showing us that Kevin is indeed a better person. And Spector has an everyman charisma that makes him the most watchable character.

Isiah Whitlock Jr., as mall manager Gus, also draws a viewer’s eye – he’s one of those character actors we’ve all seen in something, although he’s probably best known for “The Wire.” As Nathalie, Frances Conroy tries to add some gravitas as the woman reels from her husband’s murder by a madman in the fog. I think there’s supposed to be some profound conflict between her view of the mist as a spiritual experience and priest Howard’s (Bill Carr) suspicion that it’s the devil’s work. We also have Connor (Darren Pettie), the standard small-town sheriff who becomes an enemy rather than a protector when things get tough. There’s also Mia (Danica Curcic), a drug-addled murder suspect who harbors a secret.

“The Mist” is in the vein of the “Walking Dead” franchise in that it explores human behavior against the backdrop of collapsing civilization. That comparison doesn’t do “The Mist” any favors, because – for all their faults – “The Walking Dead” and “Fear the Walking Dead” have built up complex characters and a stylish apocalyptic landscape, and they got there first. True, it’s only been three episodes, but “The Mist” appears to be a pale imitator.

As the archetypes gather in the shopping mall and church, “The Mist” also reminds me of one of those King miniseries that would’ve been a must-see event in the 1990s, like “Storm of the Century.” Miniseries, of course, have a finish line that you can look toward – and back then, decent TV wasn’t so ubiquitous. Being merely competent and professionally produced – which “The Mist” is — doesn’t cut it anymore. Maybe there’s something more interesting hiding in the mist, but the idea of waiting an undetermined number of episodes to find out seems daunting.