Friday, March 16, 2007

The Dead Do Tell Tales

Like Allison Dubois, Detective Michael Raines sees dead people. But at least he knows he’s nuts.

A few years ago television took a dip into the supernatural or the otherworldly. Maybe it started with Touched By An Angel or even earlier with Highway To Heaven. The trend continued with Joan of Arcadia where Amber Tamblyn’s character talked with God although God tended to take on different faces from episode to episode. Things turned a bit more secular with Ghost Whisperer starring Jennifer Love Hewitt where an antique dealer helps the spirits of the dead “cross over”, Medium where Patricia Arquette gets psychic visions. Then there was the short-lived Tru Calling where Eliza Dushku tried to prevent the deaths of people she encountered in her job at the morgue. Famously, when Les Moonves cancelled Joan Of Arcadia he made a comment about ghosts being more relevant to younger audiences than God.

The thing that sets these shows apart is belief. Patricia Arquette’s character Allison Dubois (based on a real-life psychic of the same name) believes in her visions in the same way that Jennifer Love Hewitt’s character (who has some qualities in common with “medium” James van Pragh) believes in her ghosts or Joan of Arcadia believed in her discussions with God. A lot of people would look at these characters and their beliefs and claim that they are crazy. Indeed I am aware of people who won’t watch Medium because of the connection with the real life Allison Dubois because of what they believe is her insanity. Personally I fund such an attitude unfortunate since it isn’t a bad show even with the premise.
Raines is a show that takes the premise in a different direction.

Michael Raines is psychologically troubled, following the shooting of his former partner during an encounter with a drug dealer. He seems to have been under psychiatric care and we know that his Captain (played by Matt Craven) is concerned enough that when he hears that Raines has been talking to himself he worries that Michael might not be capable of doing the job. When Raines goes to the apartment of murder victim Sandy Boudreau he encounters a woman who is a dead ringer for the young woman. Dead is the operative word – she is Sandy Boudreau, or at least Michael’s vision of her. He has hallucinations about her but the hallucinations are based on what he knows about her at the time and what he sees changes. He discovers in the course of his investigation that Sandy wasn’t just a college student but was in fact a high-class escort and this changes her somewhat. When it seems that she is involved in a blackmail scheme, his vision of Sandy briefly changes into a version of Kathleen Turner in Body Heat – complete with cigarette – and just as quickly turns back when Raines calls her on it.

The mystery in the pilot episode of Raines was relatively straightforward with the usual sort of twists and turns that one finds in this sort of detective show. The first person arrested for the crime quite obviously didn’t do it, and while the victim’s ex-boyfriend initially seems to be an obvious suspect he is also cleared, although he provides an important clue in solving the mystery. What makes this show tick is Raines himself and his ability to identify with the victim and give them a personality based on what he knows about them. As his ex-partner Charlie (played in the pilot by Malik Yoba and in later episodes by Luis Guzman) reminds him, with Raines it’s all about the victims. (There’s a revelation about Charlie at the end of the episode that I won’t reveal here but which should have been patently obvious to anyone with half a brain.)

The supporting cast of Raines is reasonably good although in truth they haven’t been given too much to do so far. Besides Matt Craven, the cast includes Nicole Sullivan as civilian employee Carolyn Crumley, and Dov Davidoff and Linda Park as a couple of uniformed cops. On the whole though the supporting characters didn’t have that much to do in the pilot episode. It was all about Raines, which means that Jeff Goldblum is front and center for virtually the entire episode. Goldblum is an actor that I have always enjoyed going back to his first series, 1980’s Tenspeed and Brown Shoe with Ben Vereen. Goldblum isn’t breaking new ground here in terms of expanding his range; he is playing his standard brilliant but eccentric character which he does very well. He’s a good fit for the character and that’s a good thing considering how much of the show revolves around him. I can’t say that there aren’t others who could play this role and do a very good job with it, but there are none that could do it better than Jeff Goldblum.

Writer and producer Graham Yost has given us a show that isn’t overly challenging in the way that his previous effort Boomtown was. Raines is a fun show and if one were to offer comparisons – as TV critics inevitably do – it would be to a show like Monk or Psych rather than to heavier, more serious fare like the Law & Order franchise, or even to a show like Crossing Jordan. In fact the comparison with Monk may be the most accurate of all in that both Adrian Monk and Michael Raines are psychologically damaged goods, due in part at least to a traumatic and violent experience in their recent past. What I liked about the show and what impressed me most about it is the way it took the fascination with the paranormal and reversed it. Michael Raines doesn’t believe that he’s seeing real ghosts or that he has somehow been gifted with some sort of great power. He knows that he is psychologically troubled but he also comes to realise that his hallucinations and delusions are his way of organizing his thoughts about the cases that he is dealing with. I like this show well enough to recommend it for what it is, a light entertainment with a first rate actor and one which takes a different, more rational, approach to this whole business of communing with the dead. NBC cut their order for Raines from thirteen to seven episodes but I for one wouldn’t mind seeing more.

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