TV Preview: Tom Shales Has Heard Enough From "The Listener"

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 2009

"The Listener" lists, and finally tips over. Except for some appealing qualities in its young star, Craig Olejnik, the new NBC series premiering tonight is just another loopy downer about an everyday schmo who has otherworldly powers. In this case, as the title more than implies, it's a guy who hears stuff -- be it a faraway fracas or some stranger's innermost thoughts.

Innermost becomes outermost for our hero, paramedic Toby Logan, who didn't come by his peculiar talent through the meddling of a mad scientist or some nuclear accident; he was born with it, and each episode will apparently include, as a "B" story, more clues and flashbacks about his boyhood and how he came to be a kind of accidental buttinsky. He doesn't have to listen at keyholes, we can say that for him.

In the first episode, he is riding along in his trusty ambulance with blabby partner "Oz" Bey (Ennis Esmer) when he hears very distinctly the sounds of an accident and a woman in need of help. Lo and behold, they see her car turned upside down about a block away. As they pull her out, Toby hears sounds and voices from just before the crash, and thereby learns that the woman's little boy was in the car and has now, as it's usually put nowadays, "gone missing."

The premiere is filled with flaws that may well be endemic to the series, one of them being that the characters behave so stupidly that one loses sympathy for them. It turns out that the woman's child has been kidnapped by a creep, but she refuses to tell the cops or even the earnest Toby, who tries very hard to help and keeps being rebuffed. The woman has been given a cellphone on which the kidnapper says he will contact her; she clumsily drops it off a fire escape and destroys it.

She not only lacks common sense -- one of her inspirations is to buy an illegal gun for kidnapper-hunting, then leave it in full view on the front seat of a car -- but also fits into that category of female character we might call the quivering ninny. It's a stereotype that long ago deserved to be put out of our misery. Meanwhile, back at headquarters, Toby is harassed and scolded by another offensive extreme, the ice queen -- a police detective played coldly by Lisa Marcos. When the characters aren't dumb, they're mean.

As for Toby, he's Mr. Nice Guy to the nth degree, but the extent of his psychic power isn't made clear. He hears things, yes, but then he has the ability to see things, too -- his own personal flashbacks, jumpily edited and in black and white (flashbacks to his boyhood are in color). Although he's supposed to have these hyper-tuned super-senses, he completely ignores the bad guy when he walks by just inches away.

Toby has a godfather figure, a university professor who knows about his strange gift and strangely advises him: "Be careful, Toby. No one can know about you." Because? Why doesn't he let his unique facility be known to the government so it can be used for domestic surveillance? Whoops -- sorry. Wrong administration.

Anyway, the premiere episode is slow-moving as well as far too similar to other such shows as "The Mentalist." Something in the zeitgeist seems to have made these psychically endowed characters popular, but the gimmick is getting very tired. And it's nothing new, anyway; remember the awful time Ray Milland had decades back with super-sight in Roger Corman's "X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes"? Oh, you don't? Well, Google it, why don't you?

In voice-over monologues, Toby moans and whines about his special ability, which seems ungrateful, but then it's the style among comic-bookish heroes nowadays. They all have as much angst as they have pluck and daring. Near the hour's end, Toby laments of his gift that "all my life I told myself . . . 'Make it go away,' " and many a viewer will be wishing the same thing for the series.

The Listener (one hour) debuts tonight at 9 on Channel 4, with another episode at 10.

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