Drama of middling quality in ‘Medium’

Times Staff Writer

It is a new year, but we are still in an undying season of cop shows. First out of the box for 2005 is “Medium,” a so-so parapsychological police procedural starring Patricia Arquette as a D.A.’s office intern who learns to harness her special powers for the forces of good. One can almost see the word “surefire” forming in a thought balloon as the collective executive head contemplated this intersection of forensics and second sight, but both of these genres are rapidly tiring and overdue for a rest.

“Does everybody see dead people standing around the bed?” Allison asks hunky husband Joe (Jake Weber), the local voice of skepticism. Where you and I live, perhaps not, but in the wondrous world of television it happens with fair frequency -- recently there have been “Six Feet Under,” “Dead Like Me,” “Tru Calling” and “Rescue Me,” to name only the ones that make a habit of it. (That some of these ghosts might sometimes be figments of the imagination is beside the point; they are dramatically equivalent.) Now, I admit to feeling a little bit of a chill myself when young Haley Joel Osment squeaked out “I see dead people” back in “The Sixth Sense,” but it’s been five or six years since then, and the talking dead are no more exotic now than, say, chiropractors.

An opening title card lets you know that Arquette’s character, Allison DuBois, is based right down to her name on an actual person, a self-styled “research medium and criminal profiler.” (Producers love to be able to claim this sort of authority; it makes up for a multitude of narrative sins.) According to her own website, DuBois, who is based in Phoenix, has “successfully read for major celebrities, scientists, skeptics, TV producers and even a documented university test with Deepak Chopra.... I can contact the deceased, I can profile the living and I predict future events.” This is clearly a person any law enforcement agency or television network would want on its side. Still, that police have occasionally taken or sought the advice of psychics does not ipso facto mean that such abilities are real, or that there is an invisible world of gossipy deceased persons available to snitch on the living, any more than that Edmund Gwenn is Santa Claus because the United States Post Office says he is.


Of course, it’s no trick to suspend disbelief, and plenty of people already believe in the “survival of consciousness,” as it’s known in the trade, and the ability of certain people to place calls to its area code. Allison’s connection is especially good, without static -- none of that “I’m getting a feeling, something starting with an ‘H’ ” stuff for her. She gets full reports. “Even among the special, you’re special,” a fellow medium tells her. “They’re telling me you’re the best.” (That is, the dead people are telling her -- you’d be talkative too if you had nothing else to do but be dead all day.) From a narrative standpoint, it might be better if they were a little less cooperative, but that would make Allison less special among the special.

In tonight’s episode, as Allison first comes to grips with her abilities and purpose, husband Joe details her prognosticative dreams to the appropriate police departments to see what comes up. (An aerospace engineer, he describes this as applying the “scientific method.”) Soon she is winging to Texas to explain herself to Texas Ranger Arliss Howard -- an actor always excellent and too rarely seen -- who meets her on the tarmac with a fleet of SUVs and insists on addressing her from 100 yards away. Arquette’s spiky, sparring scenes with Howard are the show’s best, not surprising given that the pride of creator Glenn Gordon Caron’s resume is spiky, sparring “Moonlighting.” These scenes suggest a better series than “Medium.”

It is, to be fair, watchable enough, if watched uncritically, and not without flashes of high craft; art and inspiration are a little beyond its grasp. Arquette, an actress more usually associated with independent and high-end art films (Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” David O. Russell’s “Flirting With Disaster,” Sean Penn’s “The Indian Runner,” David Lynch’s “Lost Highway”) has a different sort of temper than television usually exploits -- she seems both unusually real and strangely stylized, as if she were speaking from underwater or through a haze of sedatives. And though it indulges in a little bit of splatter chic -- there is one particularly nasty image, in a monologue, that I invite you to miss by keeping the sound down until after the credits roll -- “Medium” is admirably restrained on that score, preferring to focus on Allison and her relations with her family and the spirit world rather than on the ugly particulars of the cases she confronts.



Where: NBC

When: 10 to 11 p.m. Mondays

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14)

Patricia Arquette...Allison Dubois

Jake Weber...Joe Dubois

Miguel Sandoval...D.A. Devalos

Executive producers Glenn Gordon Caron, Kelsey Grammer, Steve Stark, Ronald L. Schwary. Director-creator Glenn Gordon Caron.