Perhaps it's appropriate that a series following in the tradition of "The Twilight Zone" and "Night Gallery" should take a wrong turn and find itself trapped in maddening limbo on the dark and twisted road to prime time.
Such has been the case with "Night Visions," a horror anthology that finally materializes on Fox beginning Thursday--a mere 10 months after it was originally scheduled to make its debut.
Then again, given that Fox almost invariably scuttles one new series each year without broadcasting it, the producers of "Night Visions" might be relieved to see the light of day at all.
When Fox announced its lineup for the fall of 2000, the initial plan was to create a night of scary programming on Fridays--where "The X-Files" started out--combining "Night Visions" with another thriller, "Freakylinks." At the 11th hour, however, the network decided launching two programs that night represented a promotional nightmare, postponing "Night Visions" and inserting the unscripted "Police Videos" in its place. "Freakylinks" premiered as scheduled in October but conjured up anemic ratings and was canceled after nine telecasts.
Fox was then going to introduce "Night Visions" early this year, but as time dragged on the network opted to hold the show to blunt the impact of possible strikes by the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild.
With Hollywood's labor discord resolved, the network opted to run the series during the summer--albeit in the unfriendly confines of Thursday nights, where the competition includes "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," "WWF Smackdown!" and reruns of "Will & Grace" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."
Though the summer scheduling indicates to some that the network is simply burning off the 13 completed installments to write off the cost of producing them, Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vice president for strategic program planning, stressed that isn't the case, saying the threat of work stoppages played havoc with all the networks' midseason plans.
"This was a strange year," he said, "because every network had one eye on the season and one eye on the following season in case there wasn't going to be one."
Consisting of two distinct stories within each hour, "Night Visions" premieres with back-to-back episodes, with "Guinness World Records: Primetime" to fill the 8 p.m. hour preceding it, starting July 19.
Left waiting, meanwhile, were series creators Dan Angel and Billy Brown, who have already moved on to a new Fox project, preparing a revival of "Battlestar Gallactica" that begins filming in November as a series candidate for fall 2002. Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") is also an executive producer and will direct the two-hour prototype.
Despite the lengthy delay, the producers sought to downplay any disappointment about Fox's handling of "Night Visions."
"TV writers are, in general, a kind of depressed, cynical lot," Brown said. "You expect to be mistreated. . . . I have kind of inured myself to do the work at hand, forget about it and move on."
Angel characterized each half-hour as a "mini-movie," with stars and directors who wouldn't be available for a series that could be corralled for a single episode. Because of that approach, he said, "We can gear right back up and not miss a beat," noting the format would make that easier to accomplish since there are no regular sets or cast members to reassemble.
The show's talent list includes Aidan Quinn, who plays an airline-crash investigator in the premiere, and in subsequent weeks, Randy Quaid as a man who suddenly awakens at his own funeral, Jay Mohr as a Gulf War veteran haunted by nightmares and David Paymer as a suburbanite who learns a pedophile has moved into his building. Joe Dante "Any time you're telling short, scary stories, there are going to be comparisons."
BILLY BROWN, Co-creator of "Night Visions," referring to Rod Serling's "Night Gallery"
("Gremlins") and Tobe Hooper ("Poltergeist") are among the featured directors.
Angel and Brown have an affinity for anthologies, having worked on the children's show "Goosebumps" and later "Body Bags," a Showtime trilogy from fright maven John Carpenter.
"What's sort of fun is not having to service characters over a whole season," Brown noted, adding that trying to perpetuate a horror concept week after week can foster story lines that "feel contrived and forced."
The two also say they don't want to shy away from the standard set by Rod Serling, with Brown suggesting the new show is closer in tone to the legendary writer's 1970s series "Night Gallery" than "The Twilight Zone." "Any time you're telling short, scary stories, there are going to be comparisons," he said.
Though the producers first intended to use only voice-over narration, Fox pushed for an on-camera host, with actor-musician Henry Rollins appearing in brief wraparounds. "The network felt very adamantly that they needed a face to attach to it," Angel said.
Partners for 15 years, Angel and Brown acknowledge it will be difficult to attract an audience during the summer, when TV viewership tends to be lower. By premiering the series this week, Fox can utilize its broadcast of baseball's All-Star Game--which attracts male viewers--as a promotional vehicle. "We hope [the network] can generate enough awareness so it just has a chance to get an audience," Brown said.
"We are not 'Spy TV,' " added Angel, alluding to the critically drubbed hidden-camera show NBC is offering as original summer programming.
Whatever the result, the producers remain enthusiastic about "Night Visions" and hope it can inspire Fox to provide them a new lease on life. So can the show make like one of its characters and rise from the dead?
"Stranger things have happened in this business," Beckman noted.
* "Night Visions" premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. with back-to-back episodes on Fox. The network has rated it TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with a special advisory for violence).