Although “The Whispers” was developed by writer Soo Hugh, ABC is eager to cite Steven Spielberg’s involvement, and no wonder: This summer series is a veritable mashup of the director’s filmography — a pinch of “E.T.” here, a dollop of the Spielberg-produced “Poltergeist” there, and a soupcon of what might be called “Invisible Encounters of the Kid Kind.” None of that takes away from the modest enjoyableness of the show, which drips clues over the first three episodes, as kids interact with an “imaginary friend” only they can see. Less imagination is required to see “The Whispers” hooking enough viewers to make some noise.
The program opens on a creepy note, with a 6-year-old girl luring her mom up to a tree house, where the woman experiences a harrowing fall. The case catches the attention of an FBI agent, Claire Bennigan (Lily Rabe), who specializes in children, and begins to look more suspicious when she unearths the fact that another kid cited the same name of an imaginary friend, Drill, in a similar incident.
Claire’s life, meanwhile, is extremely complicated. For starters, her husband was reported killed in a military accident, and she’s raising their deaf son (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) alone. In addition, her dalliance with a Defense Dept. operative, Wes (Barry Sloane, not far from his “Revenge” mode), has complicated both of their lives. Oh, and did we mention that Barry, like Claire, has a young daughter, who seems to be a little old for imaginary friends?
As noted, there are a lot of familiar elements here: Kids interacting with a slightly malevolent presence, a strange visitor that the parents can’t see, and the always-reliable device of flickering lights and appliances. Moreover, there’s a bearded fellow (Milo Ventimiglia) hovering around the fringes, whose role in the plot gradually begins to come into focus.
Inevitably, all those scenes with young kids, aside from being a boon to on-set tutors, can’t help but feel a trifle manipulative. The adults, meanwhile, are serviceable for the purposes of the plot, but could use a little work character-wise, starting with Rabe, who, in terms of the way she delivers lines seems to have taken the title a bit too much to heart.
It’s always advisable to keep one foot on the floor with such programs — two other Spielberg-produced series, CBS’ “Extant” and “Under the Dome,” offer reminders of that wisdom — but “The Whispers” has a polished feel, enough twists, and moves just well enough to steadily build on its central mystery. So for now, anyway, even if the kids aren’t all right, the show is.