Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Medium - Well Done

And if I'm the first person to use that pun, I will be very surprised.

It's true though. Given all of the possible ways that this show could have gone wrong and been done badly, what has shown up on the screen has been quite good. Surprisingly, within the internal logic of the show it is easy to suspend disbelief unless you are one of the hardest of hard core unbelievers. Credit for that goes equally to the writers, the producers, and most importantly to Patricia Arquette.

The writers have been given a very difficult task. They have to sell the viewers on a concept that most people believe is absolute nonsense and make it sensible enough that we in the audience can suspend our disbelief in it. Mostly they pull it off, at least in part by making it seem that Allison's visions come closer to strong hunches than anything else, and always need to be backed with legitimate proof. In the pilot episode, for example, a "vision" that allows her to explain some inconsistencies in a crime scene comes across (at least to anyone who is willing to listen, which is not the people in the D.A.'s office where at the time Allison is an intern) as a simple, logical chain of events seen through a different set of eyes. Equally important, they have totally sold the fact that the character is in virtually all respects an ordinary working mom, although admittedly one whose work is rather "odd".

The producers should also be credited. Their task is equally difficult: to present something as ethereal and ephemeral as a dream or a vision in a way that is not hokey. Part of what they do is to not present Allison's visions the same way every time. By setting things up in this manner we can't always be absolutely certain when Allison is having a vision or communing with dead person, at least not initially. They work hard on this. Another aspect that the producers have worked really hard at is building the cast that surrounds Patricia Arquette. It would be very easy to make her family "perfect" - perfect husband, and three perfect kids - in short a typical TV family. Jake Weber, as Allison's husband Joe, is suitably dishevelled and even rather geeky, as befits an aeroespace engineer. Moreover he sells himself to us as a guy who loves his wife and sort of believes in her "gift" but is only slowly coming to terms with it and the impact that it has and will have on his family. As for the kids, with the exception of Sofia Vassilieva, who is 12 but looks two or three years younger, they aren't the stereotypical "pretty" children that are found on most TV shows. More to the point they tend to be written as somewhat needy kids - as in needing their mother. Finally there is the always reliable Miguel Sandoval as Allison's boss slash sounding board slash "doubting Thomas" Manuel Devalos. It isn't the hardest acting job but Devalos as a character has to both believe in what Allison does sufficiently that he wants her working for him, but has to be enough of a nonbeliever that he can not only demand proof but tell her that he thinks she's barking up the wrong tree.

Still, most of the weight for carrying the series falls on Patricia Arquette. If we don't believe her then we can't believe the character and the whole premise collapses of it's own weight. I think she pulls it off. Allison comes across as a slightly overweight (overweight by the standards of what we see on TV and the other media every day that is) woman who mostly stumbles through her day to day chores and at night has these precognitive dreams. The dreams frighten her, to the point where she was - as she says to her husband in one episode - not only drinking her share but part of her husband's share too. Alcohol dulls the dreams, although it doesn't always keep them away. Only by embracing her abilities does she become truly effective. Arquette manages to put this feeling across in a manner that is both believable and likable.

The series has has it's moments where it goes slightly off the rails. One point is that it seems as though each of Allison's daughters will, in turn, exhibit similar powers. At least the two eldest daughters have; we don't know yet about the youngest, but then she's still in the pre-talking stage. Indeed the trait appears to run in Allison's family, since an earlier episode dealt with her brother, a soldier in Iraq who drank way too much and was known as "Lucky" because he tended to lead his squad out of situations where they'd take casualties. These were of course were the result of his visions. Another irritating trait is the frequent "ghost ex machina" in which a ghost will pop up in front of Allison to explain exactly what happened and how to prove it. In Monday's episode, the spirit of a long dead "murder" victim popped up in Allison's living room about 10 minutes before the end fo the episode, and apparently told Allison where to find the proof that the "murder" was actually a suicide. It was a little too pat of an explanation, as if the writers ran out of show before they could allow Allison to come on the answer by her own.

There is in fact a real psychic medium named Allison Dubois who did work as a consultant with the Phoenix police, has a husband named Joe and three daughters. In fact NBC initially promoted the series as being based on a real person, a move which caused a lot of initial attacks on the concept in the rec.arts.tv newsgroup on the simple basis that psychics don't exist and those who claim to be psychic are frauds. From what I've seen at her website, I would have to say that the real Allison is actually prettier than Patricia Arquette. On the other hand, based on part of an interview I saw on The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch on CNBC, I tend to find the fictional Allison far more interesting than the real one. While the fictional Allison seems to accept her powers as a medium somewhat reluctantly, the real Allison Dubois seems to revel in her claims to be able to communicate with the dead. She seems far more interested in being like John Edward (host of the show Crossing Over which was cancelled within a year of starting in syndication. That said, I think that Medium the TV show has some interesting ideas used in it and as long as willing suspension of disbelief doesn't expand much beyond the fictional TV show, than the existence of a real Allison Dubois shouldn't really matter.

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