TV mystery The Whispers plays on parents' fears

The Whispers is a show about what happens when someone or something is influencing your children and you do not know what it is.
The Whispers is a show about what happens when someone or something is influencing your children and you do not know what it is.PHOTO: SONY CHANNEL

The Whispers touches on parents' guilt about being too busy or distracted to give kids their full attention

The new television drama The Whispers begins innocently enough, with a little girl in a garden talking to an invisible friend named Drill.

Her mother assumes that Drill is imaginary, of course, but it turns out that other children in the area are speaking to him too and playing the dangerous game he talks them into, which seems to be a sinister plan involving their parents - many of whom happen to have security-related jobs in and around Washington D.C.

This is the chilling premise of the Steven Spielberg-produced show, which was adapted from Zero Hour, a short story by science-fiction and horror maestro Ray Bradbury.

Speaking to reporters in Los Angeles, the producers and cast are tight-lipped about who or what Drill is and whether the show's answer to that question will be the same as in Bradbury's 1951 science fiction story.

But whether Drill turns out to be supernatural or extra-terrestrial, the series - which stars Lily Rabe (American Horror Story), Barry Sloane (Revenge) and Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes) - will tap into every parent's fears about the unseen forces shaping their children's lives, they say.

Writer-creator Soo Hugh says at its heart, The Whispers is "a show about what happens when someone or something is influencing your children and you don't know what it is".

This struck a chord with members of the cast and production team who are parents themselves, including Spielberg, the legendary film-maker behind E.T. (1982), Jurassic Park (1993) and Super 8 (2011), sci-fi mysteries that were all told from the perspective of children.

"That was the thing that Steven loved about this show," says executive producer Daryl Frank. "It's the provocative idea about what would happen if someone or something was controlling your kids and making them do bad things, and it sort of plays into what he does in terms of the idea that the scariest things are the ones that happen in your own backyard and in your own house."

Another executive producer, Zack Estrin, admits that this is his constant worry with his own daughters, aged 11 and eight.

He says: "They're at this age where they are having play dates at people's houses, and they come home having heard that song or saying this phrase and you have to wonder, 'Where did that come from?' And think, 'Okay, there was an older sibling in that house...'"

The friends that children meet online are a concern as well. He adds: "When you play video games now, you're playing the game with people all over the world. You don't know who they are and, if your kid is off in a room playing that game, what is that person going to say to them? What are they going to type to them? What are they going to do for the influence? And we hope that this show taps into a little bit of that."

In addition, the series will touch on parents' guilt regarding the fact that they may be too distracted or busy to give kids their full attention.

"We all have these phones in our hands and your kid is saying, 'Hey Daddy, look at this thing I made at school', and you know you've done it where you're like, 'Wait just a second...'," Estrin says.

"And I think it's a really interesting dynamic to explore - that the more we're putting our eyes on our devices and our other parts of our lives, every minute that they're there, they're not on those children. I think it's the most relatable part about this show."

Sloane, who plays the father of one of the children Drill recruits - a little girl who clearly feels that Daddy's job with the Unites States Department of Defence takes him away all too often - says the storyline resonated with him as the father of a five-year-old daughter himself.

He explains: "One of the things that, as a parent, turned me onto this project, was the idea that if you take your eye off and don't give your child the attention that she truly needs, then she will take it from literally anywhere, and the idea of somebody getting inside my child's head terrifies me."

Another key idea for him was the protection of a child's innocence.

"How long can you keep your child innocent?" he said. "Sometimes I selfishly want to wrap her up and leave her at four or five years old, and think that she's quite perfect like she is is now.

"But I think it's becoming increasingly difficult as parents to keep them innocent, because the Internet's an incredible thing but it opens very huge doors."

The producers have promised viewers that the first season of the show will provide answers to many of its core mysteries, but the cast and crew have been sworn to secrecy to prevent spoilers from getting out before the episodes air - a tall order in this age of smartphones and online social networks.

It's "virtually impossible to keep the plot details a secret" these days, says Estrin, "but we're trying really hard".

"We made a conscious decision to err on the side of mystery and not show all our cards in the pilot, and let the game play out over the course of the season.

"There's a certain portion of the audience that lives online and loves to find those things out. And there are plenty of people who watch the show, just like other shows, and who are guessing. But I think we like to try and give that sense of mystery. It's more fun that way."

stlife@sph.com.sg

The Whispers airs on Sundays at 8.50pm on the Sony Channel (Singtel TV Channel 316)

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2015, with the headline 'Mystery plays on parents' fears'. Print Edition | Subscribe