Fear Itself season 1 episode 3: The Family Man

Ron is happy to report that Fear Itself is much, much better than Masters of Horror - and this episode is another great one

I went into Fear Itself with a ton of hesitation. In case you didn’t read my recap of the inaugural episode, it’s a semi-continuation of Masters of Horror, which I was very excited about, only to end up incredibly disappointed. I abandoned watching the first season about halfway through, and never even bothered to watch most of the second season (though I did pick a few episodes to watch if told to by friends). The first episode was at least entertaining, and the second episode turned out to be even better. Then I glanced over the TV listing for this week’s episode.

Needless to say when I glanced over just who is involved, my excitement spiked like a diabetic’s blood sugar after a doughnut binge. Danial Knauf, late of the absolutely brilliant series Carnivale, wrote the script. That was all I needed to see to be squirming in anticipation, but then I saw it was directed by Hong Kong kung fu and horror specialist (and secretly one of my favorite directors), Ronny Yu. There’s no way I could get more excited, even when you add in Colin Ferguson (the sheriff from Eureka and one of my favorite actors working on TV at the moment) and Clifton Collins Jr. (Traffic, The Rules of Attraction, Tigerland). I expected good things, and I was rewarded.

Dennis Mahoney (Ferguson) is a nice guy. He’s got a good job at the bank; he goes to church every Sunday with his lovely wife and children; he’s got a nice house and a future. Richard Brautigan (Collins) is one of the most vicious serial killers in the world. Known as The Family Man for his penchant towards torturing, raping, and killing entire families, he’s got at least 26 victims that can be traced to him, starting with his own family (which he killed when he was 12). Needless to say, he is not a nice guy, and the polar opposite of the kind and sweet Mahoney, so when their paths cross, it is bad news.

After a ripping, and unexpected, car crash, both Mahoney and Brautigan are rushed to the hospital in dire need of surgery. With a Freaky Friday twist, the nice guy Mahoney wakes up in the body of Brautigan, which can only mean Brautigan is now a free man with a new family.

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It’s not a horribly original twist, but very well done, and Knauf is a brilliant writer so there’s more to the story than you would expect. The easy (lazy) thing to do would have been to have Brautigan use his new life in Mahoney’s body as a way to get revenge on those who captured him, or to immediately resume his murderous ways. However, Brautigan sees this as a chance to redeem himself by living for Mahoney. He takes over the other man’s job and assumes the role of his new family’s protector and father, to replace the father he never had growing up.

Of course, this is an enormous struggle, and Colin Ferguson really seems to relish the chance to play a darker, conflicted character in opposition to his role as the genial, fish-out-of-water sheriff of Eureka’s town of crazy geniuses. He is very expressive facially, and his body language is a testament to barely-restrained frustration as the killer struggles to deal with life on the outside as a normal, non-killing person lives it. When one isn’t used to it, putting up with mundane irritants like being cut off looking for a parking spot and an obnoxious boss can be pretty difficult (as is learning what your new body can and cannot do).

Clifton Collins, Jr. also does an incredible job with his role as an innocent man trapped in a killer’s body. He deals with abusive guards and his impending death sentence and court date all the while tortured with the knowledge that he not only didn’t do anything wrong, but that the person who did is out there sharing a bed with his wife and family. It’s a brilliantly good performance, and the interaction between the two actors is great as they both struggle; soul-Brautigan struggling with his new family life, and soul-Mahoney struggling to get out of jail and get his family safe.

While it’s not horror in the traditional sense, The Family Man is a brilliant and disturbing piece of television in the vein of the old Twilight Zone. It’s gritty, suspenseful, well shot, and incredibly well written thanks to Knauf. Rather than falling into the trap Masters of Horror did, where they trumpeted writers’ or directors’ past accomplishments over everything else; Fear Itself seems to be focusing on crafting good programming, which is refreshing in this age of crap TV. The episodes are getting better and better; The Family Man is one of the best hours of television I’ve watched all year.

I just hope I’m not setting myself up for a huge letdown once they work their way around to the Darren Lynn Bousman episode. I’m honestly dreading that one. I guess you could say that’s one I fear, heh.

Ron Hogan is sorry for that bad fear-related pun. Find more awful puns by Ron at his blog, Subtle Bluntness, and daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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