Day Room Rules
She dreamt a future in which she pours yogurt. My god, stop her before she dreams again!
—Joe (Jake Weber), “Time Out of Mind”
Allison Dubois (new Emmy winner Patricia Arquette) is a particularly sane tv psychic. Alternately shrewd and bewildered when trying to decipher her dreams, she nevertheless maintains the sort of wry self-awareness you imagine might attend extrasensory gifts. You imagine this despite the sensational and ooky mysticism usually represented in psychic shows, the details about the veils and the chicken bones and the long empty hallways and dank basements that make up their visions, not to mention the usual mediums’ business, head-cocking, eyes-narrowing twitchiness.
Still, in Medium, Allison seems recognizable, not otherworldly. Imperfect, well-intentioned, and mostly charmingly smart, she whines to her husband Joe (the endlessly resourceful Jake Webber), yells at her kids when she shouldn’t, and makes all kinds of reading errors when it comes to her visions. The show affords this regular-bodied working woman no soft-focusy glamour shots (think: Ghost Whisperer), no bloody scenes to reconfigure (Profiler), no revelations without dire costs, and no oh-my-god transportive moments to make her “sight” appear a gift. More often than not, it seems one more detail that needs managing, like getting the girls to school or picking up milk at the store.
At the same time, as the series’ second season is underscoring, her psychic power is different, even weird, even, at times, breaking open into brilliance. It is also a deeply subjective experience that you’re invited to share (sometimes emphatically: reportedly, a November sweeps episode will be broadcast in 3D). The season premiere rearranged her relationship with eths sublime Captain Push (Arliss Howard), by way of a visitation from his look-alike father. And last week’s episode, “The Song Remains the Same,” began, as most episodes do, with Allison mid-dream. The song “I Will Survive,” was blasting as Allison sang along and danced in deep red light, against an abstract but oddly interactive background of a musical staff and notes falling from the non-space above her. Allison is into this performance, all gyrations and smiles, cutting loose in a way she doesn’t usually, and while you’re happy for her, you’re also apt to be worried. All this bouncy good-timing can only mean trouble.
This was the case, as Allison discovered a survivor of a brutal serial abuser/killer locked away in a barn. The route to this discovery was convoluted and the sheer vibrancy of the opening moments—even past her waking, Allison was plagued by the song, so loud in her head (and so, yours, as you’re locked inside with her), that you’re allotted subtitles to understand what folks are saying to her for the first five minutes). The plot was hardly coherent, but that becomes a strength here. Indeed, the show takes lack of logic as its point of departure, so Allison’s piecing together of whatever plot is introduced in these opening dreams rarely takes a shape you might anticipate. Allison is typically being called on to help someone who’s dead (sometimes alive), or set straight some past wrong. But she misreads frequently, and worries constantly. And she survives, too.
The season’s third episode, “Time Out of Mind” (airing 3 October) begins again with more reason to worry. Allison is waiting in a mental hospital, her eye/the camera catching patients borrowed from Cuckoo’s Nest as they wobble and stare feebly into space. When Allison approaches the desk, concerned that she’s been waiting for 40 minutes, the nurse appraises her brusquely, insisting that she take her seat, that the doctor will be with her shortly. “I think I need you to buzz me out,” Allison suggests when she finds the door locked. But no, Allison is advised that she’s a patient, her name is Beverly, and she’s got to abide by the day room rules. And when she doesn’t, because of course she’s Allison and she can’t, she’s strapped down to a table and zapped with electroshock “therapy.”
Allison wakes up. Joe’s looking for aspirin, the kids need breakfast. And so the formula that’s not exactly formulaic kicks in again. Allison has to figure out how the dream means in waking life, how it pertains to her daily domestic chaos or what it has to do with whatever case is currently in line at the Phoenix DA’s office, where she works with Manuel Devalos (Miguel Sandoval).
This time, it’s a case involving a Menendez brothers-like homicide, the son, Timothy (Rami Malek). During an interview attended by his lawyer, Maggie (Chloe Webb, and where has she been hiding?), the boy claims he’s possessed of an alternate personality who “took over” during the murders and the clean-up, and oh yes, during his post-murders dinner out with friends, when he used his dead dad’s credit card to pay the bill. Sitting quietly in shackles and bright blue prison overalls, Timothy looks frail and flaky, like he’s believing this story (“It was like coming out of a deep sleep”). Devalos is skeptical. Allison is distracted. And you know someone in the vicinity has something to do with Beverly, who, it turns out, leaped off a bridge in 1959, following hospitalization, “unintentional psychiatric cruelty,” and accusations that her husband was abusing their infant daughter.
While the case will be figured out, the immediate emotional and psychic connection between Allison and Beverly grounds the episode’s thematic focuses. These include the abuses of mental patients—women in particular—back in the dark ages of the ‘50s, but pulled forward into the present as well. And they include time more broadly. What if Beverly, Allison wonders, was also psychic and in touch with Allison way back then? This means she was traveling forward in time, rather than back, as Allison does, a possibility that rather disrupts the common notion of what psychics who talk to dead people do. As Allison and Joe brush their teeth—the mundane and the extraordinary typically collide in Medium—Allison frets that she’s influenced poor Beverly. Maybe, she says, “When I was dreaming about her, I got into her head, I projected thoughts from the present without realizing it.” Joe, bless him, takes a pause: “Wait a second, now you’re beaming your brainwaves back in time?”
It’s a terrific little bit of combinatory awe and common sense. This talking with ghosts does involve time-traversing, and it’s generally absurd if held to linear thinking. Still, Allison repeats, she’s trying to “make sense” of the fragments that come her way and that she also contributes. This is the show’s most admirable move, that Allison comprehends, or at least acknowledges, her part in the process. She sees that she’s not only a medium receiving info from “beyond,” but an active interpreter, and error-prone at that. That doesn’t slow her though—she’s committed to make sense and do good, even when these don’t seem to coincide. When Joe decides to go to sleep, Allison is surprised: “Hey, is that it? Aren’t you going to help me figure out what to do?” Actually, no. Joe has learned to select from among the characters he encounters in Allison. “Let your husband get some sleep,” he suggests, “The first Allison always did.” Ouch.
Joe gets it, that Allison’s stories are always someone else’s and hers at the same time. It’s a clever structuring device, as it grants a range of times and spaces. But more importantly, it’s about uncertainty. Stories aren’t about answers, even when they concern solving “cases” (the solutions in Medium often occur off screen, as they’re less interesting than the routes to them). And Allison’s stories are usually knotted up in Joe’s and her daughters’, Ariel (Sofia Vassilieva) or seven-year-old Bridgette (Maria Lark), but prone to “see” things as well. And sometimes, the story is so deeply entwined with a dead person’s that Allison is looking through his or her eyes. Here she’s also perceived as Beverly by co-participants in her dream (caught in the hospital nightmare again, she’s apprised by a security guard, “We do believe you ma’am, and we do want to help you,” just before she’s hauled off down the grimly glarey institutional hallway).
The smarmy doctor proceeds to encourage her recovery, which begins with her “letting go” of this delusion that she’s Allison, has three kids and lives in 2005. he gestures toward the window. “The only thing you need to understand,” he says, film camera cranking during the interview, “Is that there’s a very real world out there. And it’s just waiting for you.” But this neat distinction, between real world and not real world, is always dubious in Medium. That’s because it’s a belief or a resolution, depending on where you start. Either way, it can only be rickety.