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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
V history is littered with the bones and carcasses of shows killed off before their time. In fact, if we were discussing living, breathing creatures rather than little collections of filmed or videotaped entertainment, we’d have long since moved past the term epidemic. On the flip side, there are plenty of shows that lived for too long; fare that far outlives its usefulness, while so many other programs that deserve chances don’t ever really get them. “Dark Skies,” which NBC unveiled back in ’96, is one of those programs that deserved better. Much better. After 19 episodes, it wasn’t so much cancelled as it was “not renewed.” (Don’t you just love that kind of TV exec jive double talk?)
It’s the story of two bright-eyed innocents in 1962 who are dragged into a world of nasty, violent aliens and sinister government cover-ups. John Loengard (Eric Close) and his girlfriend Kim Sayers (Megan Ward) move to Washington D.C., idealistic like you are in your mid-20s. He works for a congressman and she gets a job in Jackie Kennedy’s office. When John is sent to look into some areas for government budget-cutting, he stumbles onto Project Majestic, which is led by Captain Frank Bach (J.T. Walsh). Even if this show had nothing else to offer but Walsh’s performance, it’d be worth watching for his work alone. This is 19 episodes of Walsh being a real fucker. He died less than a year after his work on this series, and if you have any love or like for him as an actor, you simply must watch this show.
But it has much more than just J.T. Walsh. What really sets “Dark Skies” apart from the alien pack is its period setting. The show almost seems intent on obliterating any sense of nostalgia we might have for the ‘60s; very brave, bold work. In the pilot, we learn that Kennedy is assassinated by an alien. The aliens in “Dark Skies” take numerous forms, and one can’t go into too much detail about them without ruining some of the show’s finest and creepiest moments. Suffice it to say there are three kinds of aliens on this show: the standard, hairless gray variety with big eyes; aliens who look like humans; and then there are the Ganglions, but you’ve got to see those for yourself – just make sure you’re not eating a sandwich when you do. Or lobster.
Each episode is a romp through history, both pop and political. In episode four, we discover that aliens – or the Hive, as they’re referred to – are operating behind the scenes at “The Ed Sullivan Show” on the night of the Beatles’ debut. In a different episode, Jim Morrison, film student at UCLA, helps John and Kim get to the bottom of some Hive activity. But in yet another, they look into the disappearance of three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi, and about halfway through the series, John faces the Warren Commission (with “2001” star Gary Lockwood as Earl Warren). Each episode of the series offers up something unexpected, you never quite know where it’s going next. When it isn’t being thought-provoking or just plain creepy, it’s a deliriously fun ride, as the show burns through about a seven-year period over the course of 19 episodes. It starts with JFK and ends in the Summer of Love in San Francisco.
Both leads are incredibly appealing. Eric Close frequently (especially in the pilot) reminded me of a young Robert Redford, while Megan Ward just has this perfect, classic ‘60s beauty about her. January Jones has got nothing on this girl. Loengard’s descent deeper and deeper into this world isn’t always something Kim’s feeling, and the ongoing journey takes its toll on them and their relationship. Late in the series, for about the last five or six episodes, Jeri Ryan arrives as a Majestic agent, and changes the dynamic of the show, which is one of those things you expect Jeri Ryan to do.
But really the concept of “Dark Skies” is bigger than any one actor. Had this show gone on for at least another few seasons, it would be talked about today as one of the greats, and we’d all still be debating it. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been commercially available until now, so finally everyone can now get a chance to experience it. It’s the most TV-on-DVD fun I’ve had in months and a good omen for the coming year of TV-on-DVD as a form of entertainment.
Special Features: There are two audio commentaries – featuring co-creators Bryce Zabel and Brent V. Friedman, as well as Close and Ward – on the pilot and the last episode. “Signal to Noise – Uncovering Dark Skies” is a brand new three-part documentary retrospective featuring most of the folks from the show; a wonderful watch once you’re done with this series. “The Dark Skies Glossary” is pretty self-explanatory. The international pilot is also on here, which contains many different scenes and versions of scenes, as the pilot was largely reshot for a variety of reasons, so it’s a neat alternate sort of look into the beginning of “Dark Skies.” There’s also the original sales presentation, EPK stuff, network promos, and a never-before-seen proposal piece for an unmade Season Two. There are also a couple really cool Easter Eggs that aren’t too hard to find, but are well worth hunting down.