Curse that Stephen King. Despite some first-rate movies (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “Stand by Me,” “The Dead Zone”), his writings frequently defy coherent translation to TV. TNT offers the latest stab — and slash and burn — with an eight-part anthology derived from the bestselling author’s short stories. But despite some highlights, this foray into “The Twilight Zone” territory mostly lacks the requisite punch Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” delivered, primarily owing to episodes with inadequate payoffs. Limited series should spur curiosity among King acolytes, but too few of the installments really pop creatively.
With six directors involved (Mikael Salomon, who adapted “Salem’s Lot” for TNT, and “The X-Files” helmer Rob Bowman each take on a pair), the tone of the various tales proves highly uneven, and the quality certainly doesn’t measure up to “Zone” standards, hewing more closely to EC Comics adaptations like “Tales From the Crypt.”
The two best hours come during the second week: Bowman’s “Umney’s Last Case,” featuring William H. Macy playing a pulp-fiction detective as well as the gumshoe’s emotionally damaged real-life creator; and “The End of the Whole Mess,” a chilling sci-fi premise directed by Salomon about good intentions gone awry, starring Ron Livingston.
The opening, meanwhile, is visually clever but not particularly engaging. In a commercial-free hour shot dialogue-free, William Hurt stars as a hitman who rubs out a toy impresario, only to have a collection of green army men (“Small Soldiers,” as it were) seek to return the favor. That’s followed by “Crouch End,” with Claire Forlani and Eion Bailey as newlyweds who venture into a creepy hamlet outside London that apparently resides at the portal to another dimension.
That “couple ventures into strange town” theme recurs in King’s work, from the recent ABC movie “Desperation” to the final hour of “Nightmares,” “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band,” in which Steven Weber and Kim Delaney stumble into — and the title should have given this away, at least for Righteous Brothers fans — rock ‘n’ roll heaven.
Directed by Brian Henson and written by Richard Christian Matheson, the inaugural Hurt episode is mildly amusing but hits a murderous doll note (“Talking Tina” comes to mind) enacted countless times before, and usually better. The same goes for the premiere’s second half, written and directed by Kim LeMasters and Mark Haber, respectively.
That “Nightmares” fails to roil our dreams is something of a shame, since the anthology format represents an underused genre, with a few put into primetime development this year that failed to make the cut. In addition, the connective tissue provided by something like the King imprimatur offers a smart way to attempt one, while allowing marquee stars to hop aboard without requiring a major commitment.
Ultimately, though, the proof is in the viewing, and two memorable hours out of eight isn’t the kind of batting average that will put anyone in the hall of fame. King is prolific and inventive, and he’s enjoyed ample success as a TV brand. Creatively, however, this venture with promise is yet another in which his work ultimately fails to shine.