Talking to Dead People
The dead are everywhere on television, from the vampires of Buffy to HBO’s Six Feet Under, to the upcoming Jill Hennessey retread of Quincy, Crossing Jordan. But, so far, only the Sci-Fi Channel’s Crossing Over with John Edward has dared to take that next step beyond. By strict definition, Crossing Over is a talk show, as it has no script, no actors, explosions, or car chases. But it is certainly the first talk show to have as its guests, members of the dearly departed.
For a near counterpart in TV history, one would have to go back to The Amazing World of Kreskin which was syndicated for one season in 1971 or the even more obscure The Dunninger Show, hosted by another “mentalist” Joseph Dunninger in 1955-56. But Kreskin and Dunninger never claimed to have a high-speed hookup to the great beyond. In fact, both men kept discussion of heaven and the after-life very much out of their work and TV shows, never claiming that their abilities were tied to any god or any part of the spirit world. Edward is (by his own definition) a medium who “reads” people. That is, he can focus on you and “connect” you, however briefly and slightly, with deceased loved ones who have “passed” and now reside “on the other side.” In short: he talks to dead people.
And his program makes for surprisingly entertaining, almost addictive, viewing. This despite the fact that every episode offers the same thing over and over again: someone you don’t know “connects” with dead relatives you also don’t know. Seldom on Crossing Over do guests receive any dramatic, earth-shattering information from beyond the grave. There are no after-death confessions or directions as to where a secret stash of cash has been buried. Seldom does anyone get startling predictions or helpful insights into the future, like what lottery numbers he or she should play next week. Instead, in the vocabulary of John Edward, audience members get “validations,” tidbits and factoids that confirm (if you so believe) that a deceased love one is still hovering around you, aware and, in some way, still “alive.” A “validation” can be almost anything. As Edward “reads” a member of his audience, he will throw out a series of questions: Who died in December? Is your father passed? Did he have lung cancer? Who lives out of state? Etc. It’s up to that person in the audience to connect the dots. If all these questions and answers pertain just to them, then he or she is getting “read.” These questions and answers are “validations, “proof” that John is talking to your departed loved ones.
Of course, a hard-nosed cynic might upbraid Edward’s “validations.” They are too vague, and the audience is too willing to feed him information that he later passes off as having generated himself. (Though, to Edward’s credit, he often admonishes guests to just answer “yes” or “no,” and not offer up any additional information, to let him do the work.) Some validations are far too general to serve as proof of contact. This is especially true when Edward comes up with only the first initial of a departed person—“Who knows someone who has crossed whose name begins with ‘R’?” Well, who doesn’t? Or, when he hinges a reading on a sign from the Zodiac—gather any 12 people in a room and you have a good chance of having every sign from Virgo to Libra represented. Sorry, that’s no miracle.
Also working against the show’s believability is the fact that it’s on the Sci-Fi Channel. And, of course there’s always the inherent ways television can be edited for effect. (Will we ever see John getting something completely wrong?) Still, the show’s producers go to great lengths to convince even the biggest skeptics that this is not an elaborate parlor game. Each show begins with the declaration that what they are about to see is “real” and that John Edward has never met any of these people before. Furthermore, ample time is devoted each night to showing the aftereffects of a reading, where past guests further confirm Edward’s statements.
Still, some “validations” are so stunningly out of left field and accurate, that even the most skeptical observers might drop their jaws. How, pray tell, did John know that someone’s long-dead mother worked as seamstress and made a cousin’s prom dress? Or that someone else had a pet poodle that was hit by a blue car on a summer’s day when the owner was six? Lucky guess?
No matter whether you believe or not, Crossing Over can still be enjoyable viewing. If you are of the mind that Edward is a charlatan, you can pick apart his “readings,” just as you might play against the contestants on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Or, it can be like watching a magician: you know that it is impossible to saw a woman in half and then put her back together again, but that doesn’t mean the spectacle can’t be entertaining. Perhaps its solicitation of both impulses—believing and not believing—that makes the program work. Sometimes you want to point out that this Emperor has no clothes; other times, you want to believe, for your own sake and for the sake of the people who are being read, on camera.
What ultimately makes the whole Crossing Over undertaking tolerable, and not a Mad TV parody waiting to happen, is its utter lack of pretense, a naturalness despite its supernatural nature. First and foremost, Edward comes across as an affable and (pardon the pun) down-to-earth kind of guy. He’s handsome in a regular Joe way and plainspoken, free of gooey, Shirley MacLaine-like mysticism. He ends almost every show by telling his audience that the time to communicate with relatives and friends is now, not after they’re gone and you’ve got to appear on a TV show to do it. That’s certainly a message worth heeding.
Like its host, the show resists glitzy over-production. It is taped in New York (Edward hails from Long Island), and the majority of the studio audience is made up New Yorkers. Though a stunningly large number of them seem to be Linda Richman clones, most of his audience members—thankfully—don’t break down in tears even when “reconnected” to their loved ones. There are no machines generating mysterious fog and no ominous music to set a morbid mood. Edward’s wardrobe seems to be more Eddie Bauer than Merlin the Magician. He stands in what is called “a gallery,” surrounded by audience members. The only concession to showiness is the under-lit stage on which he stands. But even that is pretty ordinary and low-tech in this day and age of digital effects.
In the end, despite the focus on death, Crossing Over with John Edward presents, without apology, a life-affirming message. With the exception of CBS’s Touched by an Angel, it is the most non-denominationally, pro-god primetime series in recent memory. (Crossing Over is like a real-life Angel—if the “energies” floating around you aren’t angels, then what are they?) Though Edward doesn’t preach, per se, he and his audience are certainly believers in a heavenly afterlife. And just as television has become increasingly mean-spirited (Fear Factor, The Weakest Link, etc.), Crossing Over offers us a kinder, gentler time in front of the TV.
I’m not sure I believe, but I sure wish John would read me next.