We’ve all seen those previews. You know the ones. Kids are playing on a bright summer’s day and all seems right with the world. Until you hear creepy kid voices echoing in the background. Until you see one of the cute kids listening to an imaginary friend who’s perhaps whispering not-so-sweet nothings. This is the premise of ABC’s new summer series The Whispers, where imaginary friends are pure evil, manipulating kids into doing horrific acts.

This one is more psychological thriller than the scare-fest suggested by the promos. The plot is a slow boil, simmering just enough to intrigue us with its strong cast, killer kids (literally) and flashing lights silently screaming out instructions to its little friends. Let’s take a look at what we know from the premiere, “X Marks the Spot.” Fair warning — it’s not much.

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A Bad Seed in the Making?

We open with one of those shiny, happy scenes of a bunch of children playing in the sprinklers of a front yard. Perhaps the cutest kid to ever grace the small screen, Harper (amazingly portrayed by Abby Ryder Fortson), is off by herself, talking to no one we can see. She’s complaining, in her equally cute, baby girl voice, that daddy’s gone: “He’s always gone.” Her mom comes to get her, but she protests, saying, “No, I’m still learning all the rules.” She fills us in that Drill is her invisible buddy, and by the sound of the ominous music that pipes in, he’s one of those friends you warn your kids about.

Once mom drags Harper in the house, the door opens by itself and we see a creepy guy with a cult leader beard watching from across the street. The eww factor is in full effect, and we can sense this is not going to end well.

X Marks the Spot  

Mom’s on the phone talking to her real friend, saying how “adorable” it is that Harper has an imaginary friend. Hold that thought. 

While mom’s chatting away, Harper’s busy playing “a game” with her new pal. She loads up her backpack with tools and heads outside to the highest treehouse ever constructed for a little kid. The thing is so far up there, I think grown-ups would be hard-pressed to make the trek. She yells for mommy to get up there, draws an ‘X marks the spot’ on the floor and says Drill wants her to step on it. When mom does what she’s told (daughter apparently rules the roost), she goes crashing through, landing with a thud and looking more than a little dead. The music swells in again, menacing and creepy cool, deserving a supporting credit in this one.

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The Child Whisperer Is On It

FBI child whisperer Agent Claire Bennigan (American Horror Story‘s Lily Rabe), is on the case after being away on leave for three months. We find out she’s raising a deaf son alone after her husband was killed in some military operation. She says of her son, “Two years ago, he got sick and lost his hearing; three months ago, he lost his dad.” All that leave suddenly makes sense.

She questions Harper, with the little girl insisting she’s not supposed to say what happened. “He speaks to me through the lights.” She also adds, “Drill knows lots of things … the game isn’t done yet. He’s looking for a new friend.” Goosebumps on high alert. 

Before Claire leaves, she’s given a lead from Harper, who says there was a boy who “didn’t win the game.” After a quick Google search, Claire discovers a boy with an imaginary Drill friend who blew himself up with a homemade bomb; his mom was nearby but survived.

Claire’s Good with Adults Too

Next stop: the mother of bomb boy. Claire and her partner try to gather some insight into Drill from the woman, who seems to be in some catatonic state, silent, not acknowledging their questions. Claire works her magic on the mom, saying, “They say you’ll get through this … it really pissed me off when people said that.” She breaks through with, “My mother says, ‘Grief is like a suitcase that sits at the bottom of your bed; every day you have to pick it up, take it with you. Some days it will be heavy, full of rocks, some days light as a feather. That is getting through it.’ My husband was killed in a plane crash.” 

That revelation of relatability opens mom up, who tells about her son, admitting that he wasn’t sure if it really was just a game. Mom also remembers a man across the street, watching: “His eyes, it was like there was nothing there. He had all these tattoos.” I’m betting a beard too.

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Could This Be Drill?

We flash to the bearded man in a hospital room, incoherent, repeating a phrase in Arabic. One of the docs says he’s repeating, “It’s too late. They’re searching for the lights.” He jerks awake, frightened, not knowing who he is and insisting he doesn’t speak Arabic. 

“I think something’s going to happen,” he says ominously — and guess who shows up in his room? Harper! She’s looking for her friend. “You know where to find him, don’t you?” So if the little one is asking where Drill is, then this can’t be him, right? 

Mystery John Doe skips the hospital while Harper remains, positioned at her mom’s bedside (not dead yet). That little girl next to her mom does not exactly evoke warm fuzzies. 

Drill is a Real Tool

Lock up your children. Drill’s on the prowl for a new friend. We see two moms talking, watching their kids at a playground, with one lamenting about her husband who’s away in Africa on some special government project. Her daughter is off by herself talking it up with no one. Uh oh. She says, “Yes, I wanna play,” to her imaginary friend. Drill’s got a new playmate. When a little boy joins the girl (and Drill) in a plastic tube, he ends up screaming for his mommy, leaving the playground in tears.

Meanwhile, John Doe is wandering the streets, stopping long enough to write the name Minx on a scrap of paper. He collapses and the paper flies off into the sky lifted by an unseen force.

It turns out Minx is the new Drill friend, back at home and refusing to tell mom what happened with the little boy in the plastic tube. She’s a little bratty, like Harper, changing the subject by saying, “Daddy did a bad thing. You’re still mad even though you pretend you’re not.”  

Mom drops the line of questioning and calls her husband immediately, saying, “She knows! Call me.” Hmmm, philandering husband with a high-powered job currently in Africa. 

So Drill is privy to family secrets and not afraid to use them through the children he controls with the “game.” While mom takes a bath, Minx has some alone time with her new friend, saying, “I know, the game never stops.” She follows her motorized toy (led by Drill?) down a hallway straight to dad’s computer. Minx knows the password, easily accessing the Department of Defense’s system.

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Interwoven Stories

We meet the bad husband, Department of Defense operative Wes Lawrence (an accentless Barry Sloane), as he investigates something resembling a crashed plane that’s now a tangled mess of metal and glowing rock. “It looks like the plane was grabbed from the sky and ripped to shreds,” he notes, looking down and seeing a distinct set of footprints coming from the wreckage. So not everyone was killed in the crash?

In the “wait, what?” moment of the night, Wes calls Claire. Yes, Claire Bennigan, FBI child expert, widow, single mom. They both talk about agreeing that “it’s over.” So the other woman is Claire! Wes tells her they “found Sean’s plane in the Sahara Desert.” Claire doesn’t believe it, crying and demanding answers. Wes, with his own tool move, hangs up, leaving her hanging. Everything and everyone is seemingly linked with even more to come. 

Claire looks at the FBI sketch artist’s rendition of the bearded mystery man, courtesy of Harper’s memory. Oh what a tangled and interconnected web you weave, The Whisper writers. We see from a Bennigan family photo that it looks like missing husband Sean! 

Because two cute kids getting all The Whispers isn’t enough, Claire’s son is added to the mix. Henry Bennigan, an adorable redhead, signs to his mom, “I tried to be brave today, but I miss him.”

The final scene shows the little boy at his window talking to his imaginary friend. “This is the best present. Thank you for fixing me. Goodnight, Drill. I love you.” Surely, we won’t have to wait long to see how Henry will pay his new friend back for the solid.

The Whispers is more eerily spine-tingling than jump out of your seat scary, with enough “oh snap” moments to have us looking forward to episode two. It has the sophisticated feel of a smart, planned-out story where the writers are slowly putting together pieces one week at a time. It seems to be a conspiracy theory that smells like much more than random aliens, ghosts or demons. We’re anxious to see if the slow simmer of this mystery eventually boils over to the well-crafted storytelling reminiscent of an X-Files or Fringe.    

The Whispers airs Mondays at 10pm on ABC.

(Image courtesy of ABC)

Lisa Casas

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV