Among the Special
Why are you at war with who you are?
—Psychic (Margo Martindale), “Pilot”
The answer is “absurd.”
—Allison Dubois (Patricia Arquette), “Suspicions and Certainties”
“There really is an Allison,” begins Medium. “Really…” Apparently very sincere, Glenn Gordon Caron’s new midseason series centers on an increasingly visible psychic phenomenon, that is, communications with the dead. The insistence on the “reality” of Allison Dubois (Patricia Arquette, playing a character based on real-lie psychic Allison DuBois, whose autobiography is titled Don’t Kiss Them Goodbye) suggests some familiar themes (reality tv remains all the rage, after all), as well as some broad-based cultural anxieties. While dead people have surely always been available as dramatic subject matter, the widespread visibility of corpses—resulting from murder, war, and catastrophe—via mass media, as well as the booming self-help industry, make keeping in touch with the departed seem ever more urgent. The communication, after all, is always about the living, in need of closure or continuation.
This Allison, the fictional one who’s based on the real one, is a descendent of Sam Waters (played by Ally Walker on Profiler, airing 1996-2000). She sees “people that have passed,” ranging from victims of horrible crimes and neglect to her husband’s dad, who shows up in her bed one morning in the second episode (“Suspicions and Certainties”) to wonder what he sees in her. The crime victims, of course, seek justice. Unlike Sam, Allison is not surrounded by a team of ever-impressed associates with expensive equipment, and neither is she stalked by a killer (yet). Instead, Allison is more “regular,” married to an aerospace engineer, Joe (Jake Weber), and mother of two girls, Ariel (Sofia Vassilieva) and Bridget (Maria Lark). As the series begins, she’s actually looking to become a lawyer, currently interning with Phoenix D.A. Manuel Devalos (Miguel Sandoval), but feels distracted by her dreams, say, a murder suspect who caresses her hand as he says, “Your skin is so white. If I took my blade and ran it from the bottom of your neck to the top of your crotch, the way the blood would slowly seep out and cover your white skin would be quite a sight.”
This encounter, even in a dream, is understandably disturbing. And, as any concerned rocket scientist husband might do, Joe offers to put Allison’s mind at ease, by sending out descriptions of her dreams to various law enforcement agencies, assuming that none of the cases will turn out to be “real.” As a device to get the series off the ground, this is clever, situating you at once with the troubled Allison (you see her dreams as she does, as if they’re happening) and with the skeptical but also supportive outsider. But, of course, Allison’s mind will not be put at ease. Rather, a Texas Ranger, Captain Push (the splendidly understated Arliss Howard) flies her down to his neck of the woods to solve a case.
The fact that Allison must also come up with evidence for the case—a 6-year-old boy’s molestation and murder—locates Medium amid tv’s obsession with all things forensic. (As the CSIs, Cold Case, and Crossing Jordan all demonstrate, girly intuition needs manly proof—real proof—to mean anything in this world.) Her insights aren’t enough to close a case, and even she kind of hopes that her “gift” isn’t quite real (the burden of bringing justice to the wronged is a mighty one). But when another psychic tells her, “Even among the ‘special,’ you’re special,” it appears Allison’s fate is sealed. Like Joan or Buffy, she’s a chosen one.
This need for real proof will be the bane of Allison’s existence, in that the series has her traveling to different locations each week, solving crimes by leading cops to evidence she’s seen in her visions. Initially, she tries to hide her gift, assigned at her office to sort crime scene pictures, from which she gleans “what happens between the pictures.” When she tries to spin her insights as “theories,” the lawyers resist, thinking the stories preposterous; this even as you see visual versions, typically in “realistic” black and white, to show you that Allison is accurate (because what you see on tv is always true). One seeming throwaway scene (though none is precisely throwaway, as the show is more tightly constructed than most) has her worrying that her girls are seeing gruesome crime stories on the local news—abducted children, horrendous wrecks—because for Allison, images have dense and unknown meanings, infecting your sleep and waking life. Concluding that she is “constitutionally incapable of being a lawyer,” Allison says, “I’m either a little psychic or a little psycho,” not sure if it’s funny or not. “I see the truth,” she frets, “It’s like a friggin’ television show.”
Though she comprehends the enormity of her power, Allison is also a woman in a man’s world. Push dismisses her report on a conversation with the 12-year-old molester’s dead sister, asserting, “I’m a career investigator, a career criminoligist,” speaking slowly to emphasize his disdain. At the same time, she’s also a spiritual medium in a pragmatic, fast-paced world; ADA Balinda Alexander (excellent April Grace) dismisses “every Tom, Dick or Harry housewife with too much time on her hands who thinks she can read tea leaves or tarot cards or whatever.”
Allison, for her part, tries to blot out the visions by drinking beer (her self-medication of choice), eventually accepting her ability (or charge) to do good work. So far, this appears to be a function of seeing past surfaces, thus underlining the series’ focus on deceptions in everyday as well as sensational, tab-tv life. Sometimes, she articulates this process with the sort of mundane poetry that characterizes clever tv writing (“You’re so pretty,” she tells the 17-year-old molester. “You look like an ad for milk or toothpaste, but when I listen to your soul, all I hear are the sounds of small animals being tortured and children crying”).
In the second episode, Allison takes a break from watching Password reruns when Devalos calls her in to consult on a jury for a sentencing phase. The D.A. reminds her that she needs to commit to the death sentence. At first, this seems an easy call; the offender is convicted of killing six women and sleeping with their dead bodies—for weeks on end. Allison’s dreams show some of this activity (very eewy), to stress that he deserves all violence to be wreaked upon him (though, as Allison notes, in Arizona they’re civilized, using lethal injections rather than the electric chair).
But as her dreams begin to look more dreamy, less consistent, Allison worries about being “right,” not only in her judgments of the potential jurors, but also in her sanction of the execution. When Joe wonders, “When did we make the leap from having impressions to being certain about things?” Allison fidgets and fumes. She has to believe she’s right to do what she does. While the series tends to present her as right, here the question comes up that she could be wrong. Using visions (or faith, or assumptions, or slam-dunk cases) to indict the bad guys starts to look a little dicey. Such complications make Medium less methodical than most cop and forensics shows, which are, after all, about imagining order through science and dedicated, self-assured authorities. Allison, both real and unreal, is refreshingly messy.