Anyone who ever had an imaginary friend as a child knows the allure of private fantasies and secrets. But the imaginary friend of the children in “The Whispers” is a very dangerous, albeit invisible, customer.
In the first three creepy and, at times, captivating installments of the 13-episode series — premiering Monday at 10 p.m. on ABC — a web of intrigue that connects the children of powerful people in the government is slowly revealed to be a nefarious plan for some kind of massive sabotage with potential global impact.
The children are individually playing with the same imaginary friend, named “Drill,” who engages them in a “game” that involves deceiving their parents and friends with harrowing consequences.
Those consequences catch the attention of the FBI, which calls in child specialist Claire Bennigan (Lily Rabe, “American Horror Story: Coven”) to investigate. She discovers an intimate connection to the confounding and likely supernatural case — Drill sometimes communicates by means of toys, light fixtures, and a staticky TV — as do her former FBI colleague Wes Lawrence (Barry Sloane (“Revenge”) and a mysterious and tortured “John Doe” (Milo Ventimiglia, “Heroes”), who has lost his memory and, sometimes it seems, his mind. Things go from odd to worse when Drill begins playing with Claire’s son, Henry (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf). And, naturally, she has a grumpy skeptic for a partner — Jessup Rollins (Derek Webster, “Damages”) — because, you know, that’s how TV works.
The original pilot of the series that was available to some critics made the entity behind Drill clear. But if you aren’t aware of it, I won’t spoil it here. (Although it isn’t explicitly stated on the show’s website, where executive producer Soo Hugh is credited with “developing” the story, “The Whispers” appears to have taken at least partial inspiration from Ray Bradbury’s short story “Zero Hour.”)
Some elements of the show are stronger than others. The ominous visual mood set by director Mark Romanek in the pilot is particularly striking and is helped along by the score, and the child actors do a good job of toeing the line between creepy and normal. The adults are less well-rounded, which, given the sometimes procedural nature of the plot, isn’t that surprising or that much of an obstacle to enjoying the show.
In addition to the always discomfiting sense that comes from watching children being manipulated, “The Whispers” also seems to contain a little subtextual commentary on the lives of busy, oversubscribed parents who may not be paying close enough attention to what their children are doing or who their friends are. So it’s probably no surprise to see Steven Spielberg’s name in the credits as an executive producer. There are also visual elements that appear to tip a cap to some of the films associated with the renowned producer-director, including “Poltergeist” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” And for good measure, “E.T.” star Dee Wallace appears as Claire’s mother.
It isn’t clear if “The Whispers” will live up to any of those examples — let it not be forgotten that Spielberg also produced the less-than-satisfying summer series “Under the Dome” and “Extant” for television — but there’s enough at work here to keep viewers wondering what Drill’s endgame might be for all his friends.Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.