No one loves pop culture more than Stephen King, and for that reason, we’re lucky that he’s the most pervasive writer of our era. King is a rock star of an author — his horror novels routinely go multiplatinum, and his byline operates like a brand name. No one ever said King was a great prose stylist, but he’s tapped into pop consciousness with a conviction that none of his neighbors on the best-seller list can approach. King’s stories are suffused with a shrewd knowledge of rock & roll, TV, and the movies, but unlike a lot of best-seller merchants, he never writes down to his audience, and he never betrays contempt for his subjects.
His first original work for television, Stephen King’s ”Golden Years”, is no exception. In many ways, it’s a typical King Kreation: brand name in the title, spooky premise (an old man, doused with strange chemicals, grows younger), rock & roll on the soundtrack (in this case, David Bowie’s roiling 1976 piece of disco-funk ”Golden Years”).
King’s fiction has provided the basis for other TV movies, including the recent Stephen King’s ”Sometimes They Come Back” and It, but Golden Years is the first time television has accommodated the expansiveness that characterizes so many of his novels. After this two-hour kickoff episode, CBS will air six more hour-long installments on Thursdays at 10 p.m. King wrote the teleplay and the first four segments; the final two parts were scripted by Josef Anderson.
For such a lengthy effort, Golden Years’ central plot is as high-concept as a Twilight Zone half hour. Keith Szarabajka (The Equalizer) stars as Harlan Williams, a 70-year-old custodian for a top secret government lab. Harlan is shuffling along, pushing his broom on the night shift, when the joint goes kerblooey. Why? Why else — a mad scientist has accidentally blown the place up. King is shameless in his use of such monster-movie clichés, but this is a really good mad scientist. Played by Bill Raymond, he has wild, frizzy hair and a demented stare. He’s so fixated on testing his new, unauthorized, top top secret technology for restoring damaged animal tissue that he ignores the lab’s electronic warning signals. The ensuing explosion kills his two assistants and drenches Harlan in a mixture of chemicals.
At first, Harlan seems fine, except for the fact that when you turn off the lights, his eyelids glow bright green. (”Just some excessive efflorescence,” scoffs a company doctor.) But then Harlan’s wife, Gina, played by the great, unflappable Frances Sternhagen (King’s Misery), notices that her husband’s gray hair is turning its original brown. And Harlan realizes that his formerly faltering eyesight is improving.
Harlan’s rejuvenation forms the center of Golden Years, but there are a number of juicy subplots. The explosion and its aftermath are a big headache for the general who runs the lab (he’s played by grim-faced veteran character actor Ed Lauter) and its head of security (Reversal of Fortune’s Felicity Huffman). They don’t want anyone to know what happened, but there’s a tough-guy government investigator (R.D. Call) sniffing around who suspects they’re instigating a cover-up.
Golden Years’ two-hour premiere starts off slowly; in this, director Ken Fink is hobbled to some extent by King’s script, which, like so many of his books, takes its own sweet time to get rolling. But stick with it, because by the end of this episode, the characterizations that King and Fink are setting in place become more interesting than those of your average TV movie.
As in the best of King’s work, the author contrasts supernatural doings with ordinary life, and the scenes here that establish the gentle, loving marriage of Harlan and Gina are touching without succumbing to sentimentality. King knows something that never seems to occur to most other modern writers of scary stories: to jolt your audience, you first have to get it to care about the lead characters. Sternhagen and Szarabajka’s performances are models of low-key charm, even if Szarabajka’s old-man makeup (by special-effects wizard Dick Smith) is occasionally fake- looking. And when it turns out that Lauter, Huffman, and Call form a romantic triangle, the story becomes something utterly unprecedented in King’s work: sexy.
Most of the time, King takes the dark emotions implied by a line in Bowie’s song — ”Run from the shadows in these golden years” — and works variations on them. As the series proceeds, Harlan becomes the target of a lot of governmental hugger-mugger, and the cover-up turns complicated and violent. If Harlan’s reverse aging is a metaphor for the precariousness of youth or the backward direction in which King thinks America is heading, he has mercifully refrained from hitting us over the head with this message in the episodes I’ve seen. The writer’s achievement here is to have provided us with the video equivalent of a good summer read — Golden Years is entertaining and substantial at the same time. B+