Friday, September 30, 2005

TV Review: Ghost Whisperer

Mmmm. Jennifer Love Hewitt in HDTV...

Too bad it's terrible and ought to be cancelled after only one episode (if only it were on Fox...).

Jennifer Love Hewitt's recently married Melinda can whisper, and yes, even talk, to ghosts. What follows from this simple concept is tacky, annoyingly bad television.

If someone is going to be talking to dead people, it's going to take a bit of effort to establish credibility. Credibility not just with the other surrounding characters but credibility with the audience. We must be introduced to these powers, we must accept them as strange and wonderful, blessing and curse. We must be willing to suspend our disbelief and get caught up in the story.

Thus, Ghost Whisperer begins its pilot by introducing us to a young Melinda, using her powers for the first time, guided by her all-knowing grandmother. Together they attend the funeral of a stranger and console his grieving widow. Fine.

Fast forward to Melinda's wedding day where she's finally trying to put this ghost whispering thing behind her. But, of course, she can't. Fine, hard to have a show if she throws in the towel permanently. But she - and all her friends (all two of them at least) - have already come to believe in and accept her "gift" at face value.

Unfortunately the viewer isn't there yet. We're left thinking, "when is the husband going to show a sign that he's being supportive, but he really thinks she's crazy." But that never happens. Both he and Melinda's best friend accept her talent without doubt.

Funny thing about suspension of disbelief: we'll believe it if the main character can talk to ghosts, but it's asking too much of us to believe that her friends are 100% cool and accepting of it.

It also misses a golden opportunity - what the viewer needs is to see the convincing of the friend. We need someone to be skeptical and challenging, right off the bat (the person-to-be-consoled-du-jour does not count). As that person slowly becomes convinced, we the audience will slowly be convinced that this might be possible in the real world. Without it we are left with a ridiculous characature of a world without skepticism.

Now the consolee-du-jour does of course strike the "how dare you try to exploit me" attitude when Melinda tries to explain that she's been chatting with his dead father. Finally we get that skepticism, only it comes at the most obvious, cliched moment.

And worse, it exposes the underlying problem of the show: It's just plain tacky to tell surviving friends and family what their dead loved one thinks - even if the messenger really is communing with the dead. This show might be temporary wish-fulfillment for someone in mourning, but to the rest of us it'll always just be tacky.

The pilot episode's tearful resolution shows another problem with this conceit:

"Tell him I love him."

"He loves you."

"And tell him A, B, C, and especially D."

"He says A, B, C, and he really wants you to know D."

"Tell him I'm getting tired of having to tell you everything so that you can then repeat what I said so you can tell it to him."

"He says this show is getting really boring. And the viewer has already heard what Mr. Ghost wants to say but I'm going to have to repeat it anyway because that's how we designed the show. Maybe this was a bad idea."

"Tell him this was definitely a bad idea."

"Yeah, Mr. Ghost agrees. Bad idea. ..I do look good in HDTV though."

[both Mr. Ghost and Mr. Alive Son] "F*cking-A, you do!"

Another problem is that there are only three characters. Melinda, her husband, and her best friend. Check out any successful show on television and count the number of main characters (the people whose names are in the opening credits). All of them will have more than three. Generally in the five-to-seven range.

This means that every scene must be one of: Melinda alone; Melinda with husband; Melinda with best friend; Melinda with person we just met and don't really care about; and, rarely, husband with best friend. The possible character interactions are trivial - a triangle, and not a love triangle either. That isn't a web of interactions. It's merely the simplest two-dimensional geometric shape.

What's also sad is that this show is meant to replace the excellent Joan of Arcadia (she spoke to God instead of ghosts). While much more of a hot potato (and perhaps inherently heretical), Joan was a vastly superior show and resulted in star Amber Tamblyn's much-deserved Emmy nomination for Best Actress. Weak, declining ratings did Joan in after the close of its second season.

Finally, there's the title: "Ghost Whisperer"?

It's horrible that the title immediately calls to mind Redford's "The Horse Whisperer", but it's even worse that the comparison is unnecessary. She talks to ghosts. She doesn't whisper to them. Sure "Ghost Talker" is a lame title too, but that doesn't mean there isn't something better out there than "Ghost Whisperer". I wonder if they also considered "A Ghost Talker Named Wanda", "The Hunt for Ghosts in October", "The Princess Ghost Bride", or for the BBC version: "The English Ghost Patient"

Ooohh, wait: This one hits upon the salient features of both ghosts and Jennifer Love Hewitt's appeal... "Ghost Busts". "Who you gonna call," indeed.


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