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To the vast majority of television viewers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was just a culty show about a cute girl who kicked vampire butt. But the series created a new genre and an entirely new market. When Buffy ended a couple of years ago, an avalanche of new dramas about young women with spooky special powers rushed in to fill the void: Tru Calling, Joan of Arcadia, Dead Like Me, and Wonderfalls. It was as if any Hollywood screenwriter who'd ever owned a Ouija board or dated a goth girl in high school suddenly decided to pitch a TV pilot. Although most of these shows have since been canned, the trend picked up velocity in the last few weeks with the premieres of Point Pleasant and Medium.
Point Pleasant arrives with a slayer-approved pedigree: Its creator, Marti Noxon, is a former Buffy writer and producer best known for introducing an increasingly dark, faintly s/m element into that show's final years. So far, though, Point Pleasant resembles an alternative Buffyverse stripped of humor, intelligence, camaraderie, and good acting. Sunnydale's inhabitants thrashed horror and soap opera clichés until they bled (or at least got very sore); by contrast, the photogenic residents of Point Pleasant, New Jersey, seem happy to stew in their own silliness. Perhaps they're under the spell of Christina (Elisabeth Harnois), an ingenue who mysteriously washes up in town one day looking blonde and harmless. She turns out to be the daughter of a churchgoing mother and . . . Satan, a fact repeatedly emphasized in the first few episodes. Presumably, producers feared that viewers might not be up to decoding symbolism like the evil icon etched on her eyeballs, so they threw in a smug minion of Mephistopheles (played by ex-Melrose Place actor Grant Show) to make smirking references to Christina's genetic proclivity for wickedness. Fox's website for Point Pleasant hints at a more complex mythological backstory, something that could save the series from its glossy hokiness if it kicks in soon enough. But right now, all we've got is a weekly boxing match between Christina and her personal demon.
Medium may have an otherworldly blonde at its center, but that's where the similarities with Point Pleasant end. Patricia Arquette fleshes out the character of psychic Allison Duboisnot a teen vixen but a grown woman (based on a real person) who helps the district attorney's office solve cases. Although it's framed as a crime show, Medium dwells much more on the tiny mysteries of Allison's daily life than on chase scenes and murder weapons, as if determined to scavenge something delicate and human from the supernatural scenario.
That's where Arquette comes in; she's luminous and sensual, yet tinged with the frayed confidence of a stay-at-home mom who's returning to the workforce after a long absence. The camera hovers around her as she talks to her husband, Joe, at night in bed, her razor-sharp cheekbones glowing in the semi-darkness. Joe (Jake Weber, a dead ringer for Roman Polanski) is an aerospace engineer who radiates ambivalence about Allison's professed abilities to read minds and see spirits; he's clearly torn between his scientific convictions and his desire to be a supportive, respectful spouse. This plays out in their domestic banterwitty, intimate, and sometimes barbed. Medium creator Glenn Gordon Caron also masterminded Moonlighting, one of television's most delightfully repartee-heavy shows ever, so it's not surprising that this ongoing marital conversation serves as the show's center. But the dialogue isn't necessarily your ordinary dinnertime chat. For instance, the couple spends much of one episode worrying that their six-year-old child doesn't have any friends (and frantically attempting to fix the problem by arranging playdates), only to discover that the little dear has been spending recess with a ghost. "Any idea why a boy who's been dead five years would choose to hang around our daughter?" Joe asks. Allison's defensive reply: "You make it sound so sinister."
The series hasn't settled into anything like a comfortable rhythm yet, with too many sickly Highway to Heaven moments sneaking into the script. Luckily, Allison generally gets tripped up when she grows too sanctimonious. She remains uncomfortable about her powers, not to mention her new job, which requires her to turn hunches into solid evidence. At its best, Medium explores how a self-proclaimed "psychic with a bad memory" can balance her inner and outer lives, raise a family, and make the world a safer place, all while trying to figure out if there's a higher purpose in her ability to see, you know, dead people.
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