[9 November 2003]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
She’s hot. Weird but hot.
—Morgue worker, Tru Calling
Tru Davies (Eliza Dushku) is a former college track star. This is most fortunate, as she spends much of Tru Calling‘s pilot episode running from place to place, literally arriving just in time to avert certain disaster. Sort of.
Faith’s new series is built on twists that aren’t very surprising. That is, just when Tru thinks she has avoided that certain disaster she’s spent the previous 40-something minutes trying to avoid, she recognizes that another possibility has eluded her, and indeed, disaster still looms. This disaster, each week, is someone’s death. So far, two episodes into Tru Calling, these deaths do not (so far) involve anyone she knows personally. Rather, they involve corpses she “meets,” after a fashion, at the New York City morgue where she works as a forensics attendant.
Or at least, she’s supposed to work as an attendant, assigned to catalogue and prep bodies for autopsies. In between college and medical school, 22-year-old Tru has taken the position thinking that it will “look good” on her resume, even if it does man the night shift in a dark room full of cold corpses. But an unexpected avocation crops up during her first night on the job: dead bodies turn their heads to her, pop open their eyes, and speak to her, thusly: “Help me.” Creepy. As you might imagine, these bodies tend to be fresh (as in, just gurneyed into the morgue and unzipped, blood or burns or wounds still visible) and they tend to be dead from unhappy or violent circumstances: murders, suicides, accidents occurring during noble efforts to save others.
Each plea is immediately followed by a zap back in time, meaning that Tru wakes up, Bill Murray-style, in her bed, about to restart the day she’s just been experiencing. She wakes with complete memory of everything that’s happened to her during that day, say, spotting her boyfriend, self-important associate professor Mark (Kavan Smith), kissing another girl; or which playing card her brother Harrison (Shawn Reaves) needs for a backroom game that, if lost, will lead to his severe beating by a group of Asian opponents (let’s just say upfront that the show is neither subtle nor smart when it comes to stereotypes: science geeks, academic egomaniacs, Asian card sharks: they’re all here).
Tru then spends the rest of the episode locating and trying to save the corpse from becoming said corpse. This process is inevitably complicated by the fact that she has no evidence for her assertion that death is imminent. And so, she is repeatedly called out as weird, strange, crazy, insane, and, of course, hot.
In fact, according to the pilot episode, Tru has a longstanding affinity for dead people, beginning with her mother murdered in front of her when the girl was only 12 (this leads to the refrain that mom “died before her time”—remember it). Though she hasn’t yet solved or gone back in time to prevent that murder (and maybe bring on all sorts of Terminatory warps in the fabric of the universe), she does have a memory of conversing with dead-mom during the wake, wishing she could have done just that. This suggests that there are arbitrary limitations on her gift (the death must be very recent, for instance). She doesn’t have a choice, presumably, when it comes to answering this “calling,” and so Tru accepts each case as it comes, jumping through numerous and onerous hoops to save people she doesn’t know.
Tru’s first effort has to do with a depressive blond girl named Rebecca (Hudson Leick), who’s been shot. Looking for a lead, Tru asks her chatty, patient, and appealingly odd morgue boss, Davis (Zach Galifianakis), how Rebecca might have arrived at this unpretty pass. He conjectures, Tru grabs at most likely causes and effects, finds the girl and tries to manage her movements with regard to a married boyfriend (Callum Keith Rennie) and a stalker ex (John Haymes Newton). Again, Tru sprints from location to location, always arriving not out of breath, and with her t-shirt neatly and tightly in place.
Then, just when Tru thinks she has the situation all figured out, she realizes that she doesn’t. The twist means that she has to do some more last minute running around, and come at a climax by way of heroic maneuvering. Such ho-hum antics are obviously dull (the original title was “Heroine,” suggesting the makers’ inclination), and so the series introduces extras. One of these comprises zippy rewind effects, especially coming after the half-hour commercial break, where the entire plot to that point is recapped. (Note to producers: this device only encourages viewers not to tune in until that point.)
A second extra entails Tru’s “personal life,” including that lame professor she’s been secretly sleeping with while a student (no surprise: he’s cheating on her with another, younger student). Other supporting characters are no more promising, if slightly more developed. Harrison is an ongoing problem: not only does he get hung up in bad betting games, but he’s also scheduled in the third episode to shoot his girlfriend’s ex. On the self-destructive sibling tip, older sister Meredith (Jessica Collins), is also in need of saving: an office worker of some sort, she’s also a coke addict, hiding it from her siblings, and not very well (she arrives at a restaurant for mom’s death’s anniversary dinner and immediately runs off to the washroom). Tru’s best friend Lindsay may be more energetic, if only because she’s played by A.J. Cook (Final Destination 2‘s spunky last girl), but so far she’s consigned to shopping buddy, drinking buddy, and computer researcher.
This personal life gets a bit of a jump in episode two, “Putting Out Fires,” when Tru actually falls in love with the next body that comes into the morgue, a fireman named Nick Kelly (Michael Trucco). He’s cute and all (maybe less so when he pops open his eyes and rasps, “Help me”), but jeez: that same morning she woke up in bed with Mark and didn’t know he was cheating. (“How was work last night?” he asks, unimaginatively. “Pretty dead,” says she, in-joking for you.) By the time she does see the cheat later that day, she’s instantly ready to dump Mark (“He’s all yours,” she snips to the next student in line) and kiss the fireman (to whom she has no trouble lying to him to get information on the fire hazards on the building she knows he’s going to enter to save the adorable little girl, Samantha (Halie Zastre), who came in with him. Truth be told, even if Nick does “have a soft spot for strange women,” Tru comes off as mightily strange.
Again, Tru goes through the earnest motions of saving (by the second episode, she’s taking cabs to her destinations) and gets details wrong, thinking she’s stopped a causal gas leak when really there’s an arsonist at work. It’s easy enough to pick out this culprit, given telltale surly behavior during his first scene, but Tru maybe doesn’t have the hang of this cutting back and forth in time structure, and so she’s still missing important clues. Once she does figure this out—and the series reportedly came on air with a 13-episode contract—Tru may have to fill her time with more elaborate cases or with other adventures. Living days over might lead to moral complexities, not least being Star Trek‘s whole “City on the Edge of Forever” order of the universe business (if Joan Collins doesn’t die, Adolph Hitler wins).
Unlike Tru, you can’t help but have the hang of the time-warping almost immediately, because the device is so heavily underlined, as the show insists on rewinding images after every commercial break (plus that 30-minute mark review). Such repetition serves thematic functions, reminding you that diurnal moments flit by, that minutiae and meaning recede even as you think you’re looking straight at them. But it slows down Tru Calling‘s hour. Dushku brings terrific energy and range to a role that doesn’t much ask for either. She’s not the first star to outclass a tv series concept, but wouldn’t everyone be happier if the show could keep up?
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/tru-calling/