Medium - Season 1 (2005)
Having seen several other modern supernatural dramas like Tru Calling and The Dead Zone, I was a little wary about watching yet another one, especially after sitting through Tru Calling. There's only so much of similarly themed shows that one can stomach, even when they are entertaining and fairly good, like The Dead Zone. Fortunately, despite suffering from many of the inevitable flaws that plague the genre, 'Medium' is a little bit special.
Patricia Arquette plays Alison DuBois, wife and mother of three and the show's titular medium. She has a 'gift' that lets her commune with the dead and have dreams about the future. She puts this gift to use by working as an assistant to the District Attorney Manuel Devalos (Miguel Sandoval), helping him prevent crimes or catch bad guys and put them away. Her job puts a bit of a strain on her family life as it keeps her away from her husband Joe (Jake Weber) and their three daughters. And that's the show in a nutshell!
Sounds kind of formulaic, and in some respects it is... but more on that later. What sets it apart is the writing, characterization, acting, and direction. 'Medium' is a drama first and supernatural show second. It features characters with depth who have believable relationships. The DuBois family feels like a real one and not just another one of the cliched artificial TV families that inundate screens everywhere. They're messy and live in a normal noisy, chaotic home where they juggle chores and manage their lives as best they can. The relationship between Alison and Joe, where the work and family issues come to a head, is the heart of the show. Their husband wife dynamic (the show is from the creator of Moonlighting!) is terrific - humorous and playful but also full of downbeat moments that are honest and raw, with both being petty and wrongheaded. The majority of the witty dialogue usually comes in these character moments, though the show also handles the exposition and procedural aspects very smoothly as well.
Though the mysteries are sometimes extravagant (I suppose necessarily so), they are executed with convincing plotting and character motivations, and there are a variety of characters and situations throughout the season to keep things from getting repetitive. The show also seems to have a good adherence to the realities of procedural work and the legal process (though I imagine experts in those fields will find that I am completely wrong). It raises interesting questions about objectivity and perspective through Alison's psychic power; her visions are often more than a little vague and are open to interpretation. It's refreshing to see psychic powers that aren't as clear cut as they are in so many other shows. And when the inevitable questions about the morality of using such powers are raised, it's usually in a relatively thoughtful and intelligent way, often through conversations between Alison and her husband or the DA that address both the logical and emotional arguments. The choices Allison has are not always clear cut, and the easy route is not always taken...
There are flaws though. I mentioned the prospect of formula rearing its ugly head, and it does, with the typical episode structure being very predictable, right down to the occasional twist that can be seen coming a mile away. A typical episode has the same beats, starting off with dreams, then clues to the dreams, doubts about what it all means, family problems popping up, etc... The plots tend to be a little outrageous, with a lot of weird violent crime murder mysteries that make you wonder just what kind of hellish place these people live in. Perhaps a few smaller, simpler stories would have helped alleviate this. The integration of Alison into the DA's office without any questions is a major plot point that stretches credibility; her behaviour would have been noticed fairly quickly, and although this issue is addressed in the early episodes it is quickly ignored! My last major quarrel is with Allison's ill defined powers. Her dreams are shown to us but the rest of her powers remain vague, and when the implication is that ghosts are everywhere and that they are drawn to her, one imagines that her every moment must be torment, and yet this aspect is hardly ever touched upon.
In terms of direction, the show embraces a serious tone but is full of humour as well and it usually hits all the right notes at the right time. It plays as a drama with little or no action, and despite the presence of ghosts it isn't really scary, although the dream sequences can often be quite harrowing. Overall it has a very sedate feel but it never spins its wheels and wastes time. Visually and aurally it's not particularly inventive but it's still solid, and quite atmospheric when it needs to be. The performances from everyone are terrific, especially Patricia Arquette and Jake Weber; the two play incredibly well off of each other and create a convincing relationship, one that genuinely feels like it has lasted for a fair while. Arquette strikes the right balance between being a headstrong woman fighting evil with her supernatural powers while also being a fairly normal (and also headstrong) wife and mother. Weber, whom I like in everything I've seen him in (American Gothic), is excellent as the nerdy rocket scientist husband trying to be accommodating towards his supernaturally gifted wife and her new job. Their kids are also very well portrayed, coming across as believable and smart in a non-precocious way. Miguel Sandoval is great as the DA, a seasoned and wily customer who manages to deliver a lot of exposition without becoming boring.
Overall, despite its flaws, 'Medium' stands out thanks to its mature take on subject matter that is usually turned into kiddie fare (in that respect it is much like 'The Dead Zone', which also features an older cast and a restrained style, but has less domestic drama). It's a very good drama featuring memorable writing and performances. The only question is, can the writers mix things up and keep the show going in interesting directions? It's now entering its fourth season, so I guess I'll be able to learn the answer to that question when I go through the DVDs of seasons two and three!