Medium: The Complete First Season (DVD)

She sees what others can’t.

Check out the New Age section of your local bookstore some time, and you’ll see volumes of books devoted to life after death. Interest in connecting to the other side is nothing new, of course, and whether or not you believe it’s possible, it certainly makes for some fascinating stories. It’s in this same section of the bookstore that you’ll find books by Allison DuBois, a psychic and medium who has gained nationwide notoriety by helping law enforcement with cases and with jury selection. This hasn’t escaped the notice of TV producers, who saw potential in her story for a series. Add a recognizable film actress and a few notable writers, and the result is Medium, the surprise TV hit of 2005.

Allison DuBois (Patricia Arquette, Lost Highway) has a busy life. Not only is she married with three young daughters, but she’s also working her way through law school and interning at an Arizona district attorney’s office. Plus, Allison has some unique gifts—she can communicate with the dead, she has dreams of the future, and she can glimpse a person’s past just by being in the same room with him or her. Eventually, Allison’s sensitivity to the other side conflicts with her role in the D.A.’s office. Her employer, D.A. Manuel Devalos (Miguel Sandoval, Blow) sees potential in her talent, though, and he immediately rehires her as a consultant. Now she helps select jurors, interviews suspects, and visits crime scenes, using her supernatural intuition to help find key pieces of evidence the cops might otherwise have missed. Meanwhile, at home, Allison’s life is just as busy, thanks to her understanding but sometimes frustrated husband Joe (Jake Weber, U-571) and her three daughters, who may have inherited her gifts. Now Allison has to balance the suburban chaos of her home life with the grisly crimes of her professional life.

This episode list came to me in a dream:

• “Pilot”
Allison’s gift is put to its first big test when she travels to Texas to convince some skeptical cops that she knows about a killer they’re looking for.

• “Suspicions and Certainties”
Allison is asked to help select jurors who would likely vote to keep a killer off the streets. Can she make the right choice when the same killer keeps showing up in her dreams?

• “A Couple of Choices”
Allison teams up with the cocky and rebellious Detective Scanlon (David Cubitt, The Perfect Son), a rules-be-damned type, to search for a killer targeting newlyweds as part of an experiment. At home, Joe finds out just how difficult it is to plan a surprise party for a psychic.

• “Night of the Wolf”
Allison believes a witness lied to a sketch artist, and she must convince everyone else of this. She then discovers that her younger daughter Bridget (Maria Lark) has an imaginary friend, who might not be so imaginary.

• “In Sickness and Adultery”
Because psychic dreams are not credible evidence, Sandoval asks Allison to lie to a jury, telling the jurors that she received a key piece of evidence from an anonymous tip instead of a dream. If that weren’t enough to worry about, she also suspects Joe of having an affair.

• “Coming Soon”
Allison and Joe learn another baby might be on the way. This might throw off Allison’s feelings that a man who appears to be a Good Samaritan is actually a vicious serial killer.

• “Jump Start”
Investigating a suicide with some unexplained elements puts Allison into conflict with a cold-hearted lawyer and his son.

• “Lucky”
Allison’s unbelievably obnoxious stepbrother and his unbelievably obnoxious friend return home after serving with the troops in Afghanistan. Their behavior leads Allison to believe her brother has gifts similar to hers, and that a lot more went on overseas than a bunch of male bonding.

• “Coded”
This time around, Allison’s oldest daughter Ariel (Sofia Vassilieva, Eloise at the Plaza) takes center stage, as she has recurring nightmares about a girl named Sara who is trapped against her will. Ariel helps her psychic mom track down the real Sara. It’s interesting how the most kid-centric episode of the season is also one of the creepiest.

• “The Other Side of the Tracks”
The constant psychic dreams and subsequent sleepless nights start to take their toll on Allison, so she seeks the help of a professor studying paranormal phenomena. But this expert gets more than he bargained for when Allison gets a glimpse of his past.

• “I Married a Mind Reader”
Allison reveals that her powers become more unpredictable than usual whenever she gets sick. While flu-stricken, she dreams of herself on the set of a Bewitched-style sitcom in the 1960s, where a murder is about to occur.

• “A Priest, a Doctor, and a Medium Walk into an Execution Chamber”
Allison’s not the only one seeing the dead this time, when an executed prisoner is later caught on camera. There’s a different kind of mystery at home as Allison suspects that Ariel’s new lab partner—a cute boy—has a family secret.

• “Being Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”
After she dreams of a horrific plane crash, Allison investigates the disappearance of a pilot’s wife. And what’s the deal with Bridget’s new bicycle helmet?

• “In the Rough”
In-laws! Joe’s fault-finding mother comes for a visit, and so does Joe’s deceased father, who has a few words for Allison about parenting. At work, Devalos is under investigation for a prosecuting decision he made years earlier.

• “Penny for Your Thoughts”
Allison dreams of a murder that occurred 14 years earlier and a killer from the old West. As she tries to sort this one out, Ariel is accused of cheating in class. Brace yourself for the intensely violent opening scene.

• “When Push Comes to Shove”
Allison is on the hunt for “The Phantom,” a killer cutting his way through redheads in the city. The investigation reunites her with a tough Texas cop from the first episode. Adding to the stress is the fact that this case isn’t leaving Allison any time to spend with Joe and the kids.

Right from the start, it’s clear that the creators of Medium are treading their own ground, not content to go where audiences expect them to go. One half of the series is a police procedural, in which Allison and her law enforcement cohorts examine crime scenes and track down vicious killers. The other half is devoted to Allison’s home life, as she struggles with juggling her work, her parenting, and her relationship with her husband. In many episodes, the detective elements of the series are the “B story,” taking a back seat to Allison’s personal life.

Arquette gives Allison a lot of heart and a lot of self-confidence. As she begins her new career as a medium, she has to stand up to skeptics at every turn. In the first episode, Allison steps off an airplane to find herself surrounded by a small army of Texas cops, who demand that she reveal how she knows details of a crime not made public. I would think that most of us, if in a similar situation, would fall on our knees and cry out, “Please don’t hurt me, Mr. Texas Ranger.” Allison, however, doesn’t put up with crap from them or from anyone. One is almost reminded of Buffy Summers, another pretty blonde TV hero who defused tense situations with a quick wisecrack or the occasional pop culture reference. At home, the sometimes exhausted Allison tries to find time to be a supportive wife and mother, and she does this with confidence as well.

One of the toughest tricks for a TV writer to pull off is an ongoing relationship. When characters have a weekly will-they-or-won’t-they interaction, the writers are able to stretch out that tension over the course of a series (to a point, anyway). But a healthy marriage is far more difficult to capture on a weekly series, simply because stories need conflict in order to sustain viewers’ interest. Too often, married couples on TV resort to bickering and eventual breakups in order to keep conflict driving the story. Thankfully, the Medium writers don’t go the obvious route by having the two head for a breakup. Instead, conflicts between the two are small things, and they’re dealt with in a down-to-earth manner. Fortunately, scenes at home are never dull thanks to some wry witticisms on the part of the writers and the likeability of the actors.

In fact, “down to earth” is a good way to describe the overall tone of the series. This is clearly a big-budget show, so upon first watching it, I wondered why the creators didn’t take the thriller elements farther than they did. Sure, there are psycho killers, scary scenes, and funky dream sequences, but the killers could be even wilder, the scares could be far more intense, and the dreams could be really nuts. Instead, the creators scale them back and keep them more grounded and mundane. One reason for this is no doubt because the series is based on a real person’s life. Allison’s abilities never turn her into a full-fledged superhero. Instead, they’re dealt with matter-of-factly, showing that the strange and sometimes frightening things she sees or hears are just another part of who she is overall.

Because of this “daily life” tone, the series manages to avoid most standard TV drama clichés, such as when Allison is paired up with the wisecracking and rebellious Detective Scanlon. Now, if this were any other TV series, the writers would introduce some sexual tension between the two of them, simply because that’s what we expect from shows like this. But no: Scanlon has a back story of his own to worry about, and the romance stays between Allison and her husband. Similarly, when a murderer narrowly avoids the police near the end of one episode, the next scene has Allison returning home at night. I kept expecting her to turn a corner to discover the killer there waiting for her; because that’s the type of surprise twist we’ve seen in so many other thriller/suspense shows. But, again, no. The creators don’t go down that path, so Allison’s home remains her safe haven from the outside world.

Although Arquette is the driving force in the performance department—she appears in almost every scene—the supporting cast is just as good. Jake Weber shows a lot of wit and charm as the often-beleaguered husband. Sofia Vassilieva and Maria Lark both come across as likeable, non-annoying kids, and Lark gets away with some of the show’s funniest lines. Character actor Miguel Sandoval brings his usual professionalism to the role of Allison’s boss. He encourages her to use her gifts, but he never becomes so devout a believer that he’s not willing to question her. David Cubitt sometimes overdoes the tough-guy routine as Scanlon, but overall he makes a fine later addition to the regular cast.

The list of producers and writers for Medium include a few recognizable names, such as writers Glenn Gordon Caron (creator of Moonlighting) and Rene Echevarria (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and actor Kelsey Grammer (Frasier). Knowing this, one can point out some of the quick witticisms Caron and Grammer are known for, as well as the intelligent character interaction Echevarria brought to Trek. Interestingly, Echevarria also wrote for the James Cameron series Dark Angel, a series that, like Medium, featured a self-confident female hero with some unique abilities. However, Max from Dark Angel had powers that were all physical, such as amazing speed and agility, and she was something of a loner, who rarely let her guard down. By contrast, Allison, as depicted in Medium, has abilities that are more internal, and she relies on images and feelings to save the day. Also, she is less guarded and more emotionally open to those around her. This makes her a different type of TV heroine from the kind we’re used to seeing, but she’s one audiences will find themselves rooting for nonetheless.

The video quality on this five-disc set is excellent, which is expected for a recently made series. See the dream sequence that begins “Night of the Wolf” for an example, in which Allison’s red outfit stands out in bright, vivid contrast to the mostly monochromatic background. The 5.1 sound is also good, especially when the Bernard Hermann–inspired score kicks in.

The powers that be at Paramount have added a generous amount of bonus features to this set, starting with an extended version of the pilot, which was originally intended to run 90 minutes instead of an hour, as it aired on TV. Almost every episode comes with at least one separately viewable deleted scene. Four episodes have commentaries, with Caron and other writers and tech types, which reveal various behind-the-scenes trivia bits for viewers. Even better are three featurettes, “The Making of Medium,” “The Story of Medium,” and “Interpreting Allison DuBois.” These cover the entirety of the first season, from the series’ creation and casting, to details on notable scenes and episodes, all the way up to the night of Arquette’s Emmy win. “The Real Allison DuBois” is an interview with Medium’s inspiration, including the story of how she developed her own abilities, and how she feels about being Arquette-ized on TV. Overall, these extras are of greater depth and interest than the ones on most TV box sets, so kudos to the creators for going the extra mile on this one.

One aspect of Medium that I found so refreshing was how nonformulaic it is. And yet, there is one element of the show that does stick to formula. Every episode, and I’m talking every one, begins with a dream sequence. These usually end when Allison wakes with a jolt, immediately sitting up in bed. Now, really, has anyone ever really woken up from a dream this way? But that’s just a nitpick; the real offender here is that about the half the time, these dreams are fake-outs, and we’re supposed to think that what we’re seeing is the real deal, only to discover that—surprise!—it’s just a dream. The first couple of times this happens it can be a shocker, but by the time we’re in episode 12 or so, and the creators are still trying to pull off the big surprise, it gets frustrating for viewers. Better are the occasional episodes that put a different spin on the dreams, such as the fairy-tale-inspired ones, or the CGI-rich one that kicks off “I Married a Mind Reader.” A little creativity goes a long way.

So, do I believe in psychic phenomena? I’m…well, I guess you could say I’m on the fence. The faithful will no doubt enjoy this show because the psychic stuff is never sensationalized but is played in a straightforward, down-to-earth manner. This is also a benefit for nonbelievers, because it grounds the characters, making them easy to relate to. The slice-of-life feel of the show makes it different from others of its kind and gives it a wide-ranging appeal. Give it a try.

The Verdict

This time, the dead can rest easy: not guilty.

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