Miracles

[28 January 2003]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

The Faith Thing

The first scene in Miracles is drearily atmospheric. A chime tones in the background, measured and ominous. The first shot is tight on a gravestone, for a nun who died in 1861. A dog barks. Chained up nearby, it lunges and drools as a tractor grinds away, pulling the sister’s coffin from its dark resting place. Ernest Holzmann’s camerawork feels rushed and dodgy, skillfully disconcerting in the way that current horror movies like to be. Suddenly, the winch breaks and the coffin falls on one of the workers: squish! As he screams in pain and creepiness, her body tumbles out—perfectly preserved, her eyes popped open and alarmingly pale.

Cut to another scene: men probe the body, which lies on a gurney lit in a stock silvery haze. At least one is pushing for canonization—she must be a saint if she remains so intact after 140 years. Enter the young expert, Paul Callan (Skeet Ulrich). He leans in to smell the corpse: “Sweet,” he observes. “The odor of sanctity!” exults the pro-sainthood fellow. Paul has another idea. He sticks a needle directly into the nun’s eyeball, the penetration shown in close detail, like they do on C.S.I. He looks at the extracted fluid and gets an idea. Within minutes, Paul’s back at the gravesite, briefly stopped by a cop who says the area’s closed to the public, that they’re waiting for “a guy who’s gonna check for miracles or something.” Paul barely smiles and introduces himself: “I’m the guy.”

He is, though he has an appropriately vexed relationship to this designation and the gig that goes with. That would be investigating supposed “miracles” for the Catholic Church, vaguely like Gabriel Byrne in Stigmata, only he’s not a clergyman, so he needn’t carry the onerous social and political baggage that such a profession would at this precise moment in time. Still, he’s disappointed that he’s always having to debunk strange occurrences and keen beliefs, always finding reasons that have nothing to do with divine intervention.

No surprise, Paul has a sage mentor, Father “Poppi” Calero (ever game Hector Elizondo), who endeavors to assuage his doubts. “What’s the point of faith if it’s never tested?” asks Poppi, probably reasonably. Paul frets nonetheless: “Maybe we’re all alone down here.” Take some time off, counsels Poppi. “Work extra hard on the faith thing.”

It appears that working on the faith thing will comprise the chief business of Miracles Advertisements assert that it’s “from the people who brought you The Sixth Sense,” meaning Spyglass Entertainment, as well as writer Richard Hatem, who wrote The Mothman Prophecies, but not M. Night Shyamalan. Sort of a mishmash of The Twilight Zone, Millennium, and The X-Files, by way of Shyamalan’s plot-twisty sensibility and The West Wing‘s self-loving solemnity, it looks great, all perpetually gray edginess and doting close-ups on Paul’s ghastly pale visage, and Ulrich (whom David Spade once accused of filching Johnny Depp’s DNA) brings a combination of weary intensity and ethereal pretty-boy beauty that makes Paul eminently watchable.

This despite the contrived situations in which he finds himself, beginning with the premiere episode’s elaborate life and death crisis (presaged by a series of dreams where he sees the words “God is coming” on various passing surfaces—water towers, billboards). Taking Poppi’s advice, Paul heads off, by train, to an apparently “Western” town, where he works on a construction crew. It’s manly, sweaty labor, undertaken alongside a mostly Hispanic crew looking decidedly less privileged than Paul; what they’re doing is no “time off.” Still, his stint as a working man—revealed in a brief montage sequence highlighting the dust on the job and the dinginess of his motel room—that he imagines will bring him back to earth and get his mind off all the lack of divine intervention that’s been bothering him.

No such luck. Or lack. Paul is summarily summoned to another small town, down the road a piece, where little Tommy Ferguson (Jacob Smith) is performing ostensible miracles in a trailer park. Specifically, he’s healing people by laying on his hands and saying, “I hope you feel better soon.” Now, a phrase like this can be interpreted any number of ways. Perhaps it’s an oblique address to disillusioned viewers, feeling so besieged by game-tv that any series that looks even remotely odd or brooding, much less like it’s raising questions regarding institutional religion and detectable reality, gets a couple of points just for showing up. Or perhaps it’s more broadly emblematic, you know, the world in pain, seeking emotional solace and a reason to believe. In something.

Paul’s sense of what Tommy means is, or course, more immediate to his own situation, the situation that will drive the series. The two share an unnerving intimacy, for each has seen the other in dreams long before they meet. More to the point of Tommy’s service as Paul’s object lesson embodied, the boy’s healing powers drain him of his own health. Whenever he cures someone—of cancer, blindness, fever, car wreck injuries—Tommy weakens, as if he’s absorbing the illness into himself. Making this sacrifice willingly, little Tommy shows Paul that whining about his frustrations is categorically wussy. And, given that Paul is your surrogate doubter of things godly and good, his revelation is charged through with all sorts of insinuations and exhortations.

Paul’s lesson is a timely one, to be sure, as it has to do with making sense out of generosity in a world where vengeance and justice seem the overwhelming watchwords. Still, it’s unlikely that every week of Miracles will call for someone dying to teach Paul a lesson re. the faith thing. Not only would this be depressing beyond the point of good ratings sense, it would also be tedious if he turned out to be one of those white guys in narcissistic need of “other” characters—younger, poorer, less white, more female—to teach him.

And so, the series finally discloses that it does have something else on its mind, aside from Paul’s personal salvation or his decision to go back to work with Poppi and the Church. First, there’s his concern that the miracle isn’t entirely legitimate, that maybe it’s the work of someone other than god. “Now, he says after the debacle with Tommy, “I’m afraid we’re not alone, and maybe that’s not such a good thing.” Poor guy can’t win for losing, and that makes for more interesting tv. There are enough angels already touching people.

Second, you can’t help but notice that there’s this sinister-seeming other guy lurking at the edges of Paul’s various breakdown and breakthrough scenes. Alva Keel (Angus MacFadyen) introduces himself at episode’s end as “someone who can help” (while “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” plays on the soundtrack—take that as you will). A onetime Harvard professor, now a “researcher” of apparent miracles, Alva is aligned with a “brotherhood” called the Sodalitas Quaerito (a name that helpfully sends Paul to his dictionary, so you can find out what it means too).

Paul is an investigator by trade and something of a skeptic by instinct, so his desire to believe—or better, to find an explanation that he can hold on to—is perhaps especially convoluted. He has to be Mulder and Scully, not easy under the best of circumstances, but made worse by the fact that they’ve already done it, well, famously, and for a long time. Much like Shyamalan’s movies, Miracles poses difficult questions, reveals interesting patterns and bits of seeming design (even its title evokes the director’s last film, Signs), and comes up with titillating explanations and elegant visual evocations.

In making its plot points so relentlessly personal—nothing happens that doesn’t affect Paul in some direct way—the series premiere limits its narrative and perspective options. As the series opens out, Alva’s secretiveness and general distrust bode well. Even more mysterious and hopeful is the introduction of yet another investigator—perhaps a member of the “brotherhood”—former police officer Evelyn Santos (Marisa Ramirez). Answering the door as the first episode ends, she invites Paul inside.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/miracles/